Bernhard Schlink

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Ulf Zimmerman (review date autumn 1996)

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SOURCE: Zimmerman, Ulf. Review of Der Vorleser, by Bernhard Schlink. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 951.

[In the following review, Zimmerman praises Schlink's characterization in Der Vorleser, calling the novel “powerful and poignant.”]

Bernhard Schlink has made a reputation for himself as a master of mysteries grounded in the realities of past and present Germany. In Der Vorleser (The Reader) too there is a pivotal element of mystery, but it is subordinated to the profounder dilemmas of living German history.

The story is that of the fifteen-year-old Michael, who, in the late 1950s, is taken in by Hanna, a thirty-six-year-old woman, because he gets sick in front of her apartment house. He and Hanna drift into an affair of intense mutual dependence. As the title indicates, one of the central features of their ritual is that he reads to her before they proceed to showering and having sex. The affair culminates in a bicycle tour, for which she asks him to make all the arrangements—routes, meals, inns (where, of course, he must register them as mother and son for a room). Shortly after their return, she suddenly and inexplicably gives up her job as a streetcar conductor, leaves town, and disappears without a trace.

Years later Michael is studying law. One professor gives his seminar the assignment of following the prosecution of five female concentration-camp guards who had allegedly let several hundred Jewish women burn to death in a church, which they could have unlocked. Among the five women is Hanna, whose codefendants reveal that she had held back from the groups routinely shipped to Auschwitz several of the more delicate young Jewish girls to visit her in the evenings. Though these girls had only read to Hanna on those evenings, as one of the guards admits, the codefendants gang up on Hanna in accusing her of having written the cover-up report of the fire and implicating them. She admits to having done so and receives a life sentence.

Michael wonders why she had let the SS recruit her from a Siemens factory, where she was about to be promoted to supervisor. When he discovers that she had likewise quit her job in his hometown at the very moment she had been offered a chance to become a driver and combines these instances with similar behaviors he had observed, the answer dawns on him. I won't reveal it (if it's not evident already), but this knowledge does not make it any easier to understand why the otherwise good, normal, and decent Hanna—or anyone else—would let an inadequacy like hers drive her into participating in crimes as monstrous as those of the Nazis. Or worse, perhaps it does: perhaps we are most of us so socially and emotionally insecure that we will indeed do almost anything not to reveal any of our failings.

This is only one of the moral quagmires Schlink presents the reader. In addition to Hanna's guilt, there is the more ambiguous guilt by association (and by heredity) that Michael feels, and Schlink makes genuinely palpable just how much Vergangenheitsbewältigung really exacts as he brings Michael's life up to the present, when Hanna is finally pardoned. Germans of Michael's age will find themselves in singular empathy with the narrator and his tale, but the utter artlessness Schlink has given its telling will, I think, likewise completely take in other readers and compel them to unprecedented reflection. Not much fiction on “mastering the past” has been more powerful and poignant than this unassuming-looking little volume.

Carole Angier (review date 25 October 1997)

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SOURCE: Angier, Carole. “Finding Room for Understanding.” Spectator 279, no. 8830...

(This entire section contains 925 words.)

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(25 October 1997): 54-5.

[In the following review, Angier asserts that The Reader offers an interesting and engaging portrayal of post-World War II “German guilt.”]

At first this seems a simple, intriguing little tale. But be warned. It does to you what history does to its characters: before you know where you are, you are faced with the most extreme, unanswerable questions, which you have to decide.

At 15 the narrator, a boy living in a postwar German town, falls in love with a 36-year-old woman. Their meetings are always the same: they shower, he reads to her, they make love. Hanna is strange and secretive and, when they quarrel, cruel. Michael has to surrender and beg her forgiveness or she will send him away. And yet she seems to need his love and approval as much as he needs hers. Finally, as a result, it seems, of his abandoning her for his friends one afternoon, she disappears. He does not see her again until many years later, when he has become a law student. One day he attends a trial concerning the concentration camps, and she is one of the defendants.

Here the book shuts like a trap and you can't escape, however much you long to. The split between Michael's memories of love and what he is now forced to know makes horribly vivid the torment of the ‘second generation’ of Germans, the children of those who were, or served, or just accommodated, the Nazis. And by the time he writes down his story nearly 30 years later, he has thought so long and hard about German guilt that The Reader distils its questions, its answers, and its pure pain more simply and disturbingly than anything I've ever read.

Michael himself asks one key question. He notices how everyone in the court, including himself, begins the trial in shock and disbelief, but after a few weeks becomes numb and used to it. And he notices how all the survivors' accounts, and the rare accounts by perpetrators too, talk about this numbness, ‘in which gassing and burning are everyday occurrences’. Something similar happens to perpetrators and victims, the dead and the living. But ‘can one see them all as linked in this way?’ No, he answers; the person who endures suffering and the person who imposes it are incommensurable. But the question has been raised.

One answer is given by a man he meets on the way to see the remains of a concentration camp with his own eyes. ‘You want to understand why people can do such terrible things?’ the man asks mockingly, even though there was no war, no reason for hatred. ‘But executioners don't hate the people they execute, and they execute them all the same.’ And not because they are under orders, but simply because it is their job. After this exchange, Michael feels a great emptiness, as if he had been searching for something ‘not outside, but within myself, and had discovered there was nothing to be found’.

These questions and answers are painful not only to him but to us, because they are put so well; because Hanna and her generation, like Satan in Paradise Lost, are allowed to have, if not the best, at least the best possible lines. We have seen Hanna as a human being—not a good one, but a real one. She herself asks another key question of the judge at her trial: ‘What would you have done?’ And during the trial Michael shows her as victimised in her turn, honest and dignified. When he puts together his past love and present knowledge he understands something about Hanna that no one else does. It does not make her not guilty; but it makes her less guilty than both the court and the other defendants want to believe. Now Michael himself must decide what to do, whether or not to reveal Hanna's secret. Now it's his turn to find himself with a huge, unchosen moral responsibility which he cannot escape, even—especially—if he does nothing at all.

By putting the dilemma so lucidly, and by recreating it for Michael and for us, The Reader brings the question of guilt as close to us as to the Germans. Should we resist? Is The Reader revisionist? Is its portrait of Hanna loaded? Is it fair to give her that secret, which explains, if it does not excuse her, when most perpetrators did not have it? Or is there perhaps a suggestion that they did, that each had his or her own weakness which left them unarmed against the system? Every reader will have a different answer. Mine is that The Reader is not revisionist, because it is too profound; that it is more destructive of our ability to point the finger away from ourselves than any merely revisionist work could ever be.

In the end its main conclusion, for me, is not about Germans in the past, but about us now. It is a heartbreaking conclusion for everyone who tries to emulate Primo Levi's great aim: not to hate but to understand. Michael comes to it after his second visit to the site of KZ Struthof-Natzweiler:

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding.

Gabriele Annan (review date 30 October 1997)

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SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Thoughts about Hanna.” London Review of Books 19, no. 21 (30 October 1997): 22-3.

[In the following review, Annan compliments the moral ambiguousness of the character of Michael in The Reader, noting the work's “virtuoso passages of evocation.”]

Last year in Bonn in the brand-new Museum of Modern History (Haus der Geschichte) I watched a video about concentration camps. A row of female guards captured by the Allies stood in line, middle-aged and grim. Then a younger one spoke straight to camera. She was blonde and dishevelled; she said her name, her age—24—and that she had been at Belsen two months. She looked terrified. I felt sorry for her, and shocked that I was. This novel [The Reader] is about someone like her, and examines the feelings I had.

It is an anxious, intense and gripping work, and the opening is characteristically abrupt: ‘When I was 15, I got hepatitis.’ That was in 1958. The narrator is Michael Berg, the son of a professor of philosophy. One day on his way home from school he throws up and nearly faints. A woman takes him into the courtyard of her apartment block, sluices him down at the pump, then sluices down the pavement. He is crying, so she gives him a hug, and walks him home. He spends the next six months in bed. As soon as he gets better, his mother sends him off with a bunch of flowers to thank the woman. He goes to see her again a few days later, and they make love.

Hanna is 36 and a tram conductor. She lives alone, and Michael visits her every day after school. She is brusque, sexy and affectionate in a briskly maternal way. She calls him ‘Kid’. (Fortunately this very good translation is American. Whatever would have happened to Jungchen in English?) She is always washing; a lot of their love-making takes place in the shower, and Michael's elation at his initiation and growing competence, as well as the pure delight of sex, come steaming off the page. Schlink writes marvelously about adolescence and about sex. He is particularly good on smells like soap and fresh sweat, and he does it with hardly any adjectives. Michael's idiom is spare to the point of austerity, in keeping with the man he has become 30 years later when he writes this memoir.

Hanna likes being read to, and Michael reads her his school set books: Homer, Lessing, Schiller; and after that, War and Peace. ‘Reading to her, showering with her, making love to her, and lying next to her for a while afterwards—that became the ritual in our meetings.’ But the idyll is not perfect. Hanna is subject to unpredictable fits of pique and fury; once she strikes Michael with her belt and the buckle tears his face. The boy blames his own insensitivity, imagining that because of his inexperience he has wounded her in some way he can't fathom.

But his newfound confidence makes him popular with his school-mates, and he begins to spend a lot of time hanging out with them at the swimming-pool. One day Hanna turns up there; he does not run immediately to join her; and a moment later she has gone. The next day he goes to her flat. It is empty. She hasn't even left an address. Again he blames himself for having behaved badly to her.

Seven years pass before he sees her again. He is now a law student, and his professor sends him to watch a trial of concentration camp guards. Hanna is among the women in the dock. Seated behind her, he watches strands of hair escape from her chignon and curl on her neck. She readily admits certain charges, but argues when she disagrees or doesn't understand. She seems to want to get at the truth more than to defend herself. The trial hinges on the fate of a group of prisoners during the retreat from Auschwitz at the end of the war. They burned to death in a locked church when the Americans bombed the village. The other women claim that Hanna refused to unlock the church. She wrote the report on the incident, they say: so she was in charge. She denies it. But when the judge calls for a handwriting test, she refuses and admits the accusation. She is sent down for life. The others get shorter sentences.

It comes to Michael that Hanna is illiterate. This is the most stunning of the retrospective revelations that make this brooding examen de conscience into a cliffhanging mystery. Hanna's handicap dictated her life. It is the reason she liked being read to. At the trial she confesses to having young prisoners read to her in exchange for better conditions: sinister motives are inferred. Her illiteracy is also the reason that she disappeared: not because Michael disowned her in front of his friends, but because her tram company wanted to train her as a driver; they would have discovered what she regards as her shame. Her flight was a replay of her entry into the SS. As a young girl at the start of the war she worked for Siemens. They offered her promotion, but then her secret would have come out. So she chose the SS, who were recruiting women from Siemens at the time. It was her escape route.

Should Michael go behind Hanna's back, see the judge and tell him that Hanna can't have signed the report, can't be responsible for the prisoners' death? He asks his father for advice—an unusual step, because the professor has always been a remote, neglectful parent. The answer he gets is negative—and Kantian: ‘He instructed me about the individual, about freedom and dignity, about the human being as subject and the fact that one may not turn him into an object.’ ‘Not even if he himself would be happy about it later?’ Michael asks. ‘We're not talking about happiness, we're talking about dignity and freedom. Even as a little boy, you knew the difference. It was no comfort to you that your mother was always right.’ The conversation ends with the professor saying:

‘I can't say I'm sorry I can't help you. As a philosopher, I mean, which is how you were addressing me. As your father, I find the experience of not being able to help my children almost unbearable.’

I waited, but he didn't say anything else. I thought he was making it easy on himself: I knew when he could have taken care of us more and how he could have helped us more. Then I thought that perhaps he realised this himself and really found it difficult to bear. But either way I had nothing to say to him.

The conversation is excruciating as well as crucial, because the professor is in pain: but that, like Hanna's illiteracy, is not revealed until the end of the episode. Schlink creates opportunities for sentiment, but never takes them; and the refusal helps to give his novel its moral poise. Michael leaves his father's study, glad to have been let off the hook; then he forces himself to go to the judge just the same. But the man is so amiable, patronising and bland that he never gets round to telling him why he came.

The trial forms Part Two of the novel. Part Three is a backward look from the Nineties at the intervening years. Michael's life has been dimmed by a kind of anomie, except in dreams and night thoughts about Hanna. Some are erotic replays of their affair, others even more erotic fantasies of a brutal Hanna in her role as wardress. Guilt torments him: the guilt of his own generation and his parents'; guilt at having loved someone like Hanna, guilt at abandoning her, guilt at betraying her by keeping her a secret from his friends.

I didn't reveal anything I should have kept to myself. I kept something to myself that I should have revealed. I didn't acknowledge her. I know that disavowal is an unusual form of betrayal. From the outside it is impossible to tell if you are disowning someone or simply exercising discretion, being considerate, avoiding embarrassments and sources of irritation. But you, who are doing the disowning, you know what you're doing. A disavowal pulls the underpinnings away from a relationship just as surely as other more flamboyant types of betrayal.

One can sympathise with Michael's analysis of his own bad behaviour and understand that he feels shame; but when he agonises—as he does all the time—about his guilt in having loved a criminal, even though, at the time of loving her, he did not know she was one—then his moral fastidiousness seems excessive. He condemns his parents' whole generation, including his father, who opposed the Nazis and had to resign from the university. They were all guilty, and his own contemporaries are guilty too because ‘their love for their parents made them irrevocably complicit in their crimes.’ He interprets the events of 1968 as an attempt by the young to dissociate themselves from these crimes: ‘the parade of self-righteousness … the sounds and noise … were supposed to drown out the fact that their love for their parents made them irrevocably complicit.’

Michael marries a fellow law student called Gertrud, but they drift amicably apart. All he feels is pity for their little daughter. He has affairs, but they peter out. As for his career: ‘I didn't see myself in any of the roles I had seen lawyers play at Hanna's trial. Prosecution seemed to me as grotesque a simplification as defence, and judging was the most grotesque oversimplification of all.’ So he moves from the university to a research institute. ‘Gertrud said it was an evasion, an escape from the challenges and responsibilities of life, and she was right … [it was] a niche in which … I needed no one and disturbed no one.’ But he can't sleep. He reads through the nights. Then he decides to tape what he reads and sends the tapes to Hanna. He never sends a message, but after three years he gets one: ‘Kid, the last story was especially nice. Thank you. Hanna.’ Hanna has learnt to read and write.

The end of the novel is shattering. Eighteen years after the trial, 15 years after the first tape, Michael has a letter from the prison governor: Hanna is about to be released. She will need help. Michael appears to be her only contact. He finds her a flat and a job. A week before her release, he visits her and arranges to pick her up; he suggests spending her first day of freedom together by the river. When he arrives at the prison she is dead: she has hanged herself. ‘For years and years,’ the governor says,

she lived here the way you would live in a convent. As if she had moved here of her own accord and voluntarily subjected herself to our system … She was greatly respected by the other women, to whom she was friendly but reserved. More than that, she had authority.

Then in the last years, she changed.

She got fat and smelled. She didn't seem unhappy or dissatisfied. In fact it was as though the retreat to the convent was no longer enough, as though life in the convent was still too sociable and talkative, and she had to retreat even further, into a lonely cell safe from all eyes, where looks, clothing and smell meant nothing.

Guilt about the war and the Holocaust has been the staple of serious German fiction for at least two generations: from Böll and Grass to Hofmann, Ransmayr and Sebald. Novels are set against a background of destruction: a background first of ruins, then of new buildings—resented rather than welcomed, whether the old buildings were bombed or simply pulled down for redevelopment. The ghosts of the old buildings haunt the new, ghosts as melancholy as Rachel Whiteread's, but more vindictive. The Reader has a magical second chapter about the dilapidated apartment block where Hanna lived, and which Michael used to pass long before he met her. It was pulled down in the Sixties. As a little boy he fantasised about the interior behind its grand façade of balconies, pillars and stone lions. Later, it became a recurrent feature in his dreams, turning up in quite alien settings—in Rome, in Berlin, on a country road. In the dream he always recognises it, always knows he has seen it before. The chapter is so hallucinatory that the end feels like waking up.

The Reader is a very short novel crammed with incident and analysis, and yet Schlink finds room for virtuoso passages of evocation. When Michael pays his ineffectual visit to the judge, for instance, at the end of the day in court, ‘the window was open. In the car park, doors were being slammed and engines turned on. I listened to the cars until their noise was swallowed up in the roar of the traffic. Then children came to play and yell in the car park. Sometimes a word came through quite clearly: a name, an insult, a call.’ It would be hard to do better with night falling in a city.

The writing is so compelling that one comes to accept the not very acceptable idea that Michael is both innocent and guilty. But that is because Michael's agonies of conscience and gradual change of personality are so vivid that one forgets he is only the Kantian intellectual hero of someone else's novel, and that the story of Michael and Hanna is an allegory of two generations of Germans: for she is old enough to be his mother (a fact highlighted when they spend a weekend in the country and sign the hotel register as mother and son). The Reader offers no solutions, and the ending is Kantianly bleak: ‘What a sad story, I thought for so long. Not that I now think it was happy. But I think it is true, and thus the question of whether it is sad or happy has no meaning whatsoever.’

Bryan Cheyette (review date 28 November 1997)

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SOURCE: Cheyette, Bryan. “The Past as Palimpsest.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4939 (28 November 1997): 23.

[In the following review, Cheyette offers a generally positive assessment of The Reader, but asserts that the novel's evocation of Jewish victimhood is inadequate.]

At one point in The Reader, the book's narrator, Michael Berg, fears that he has descended into platitude. Berg, at the age of sixteen, has fallen in love with Hanna Schmitz, a woman twenty years his senior. The sentimental version of boyish sexual awakening (sometimes with an older woman) is a staple of Hollywood cinema, though it also informs much serious nineteenth-century European literature. As he looks back on his intense affair with Hanna, after a thirty-year gap, Berg is aware that his memories have been undermined by “fantasized images”. Later on, he calls on “reality” to “drive out the clichés”. What makes this novel so compelling is precisely the quality of rereading past events so as to avoid turning agonized recollections into comfortable banalities. Bernhard Schlink, a professor of law at the University of Berlin, is also a crime writer, which is presumably one reason why he is so suspicious of the merely formulaic.

Berg is completely transformed by his relationship with Hanna and, at the beginning of their love-making, forgets “the world in the recesses of the body”. Their undiminished ardour, which takes the form of incessant bathing, reading the classics and occasional brutality (from Hanna), is subtly erotic and begins to resonate with a broader set of preoccupations. Salvific waters and a civilizing literacy, coupled with an underlying violence, gradually develop into a story about postwar Germany and its supposedly redemptive relationship with the past. Berg matures and becomes overly cerebral, but the gruff Hanna is able to control him in much the same way that an overbearing mother manipulates her son. Hanna calls Berg “kid” throughout their liaison (a nice touch in this excellent translation), and they even check into a hotel as mother and son. Their break-up eventually becomes symbolic of a wider generational divide.

At the end of the first part of this triptych, Hanna mysteriously disappears. Virtually overnight, she leaves her run down apartment and her job as a tram-conductor. Berg is permanently deformed by his time with Hanna, and he learns “never again to love anyone whom it would hurt to lose”. The coldness of his subsequent romances and marriage, and his own self-alienation, all begin to speak to a wider post-war German malaise. “Waking from a bad dream does not necessarily console you”, we are told, but is this about Berg or his homeland? His conflicted sense of feeling “perpetually confident and insecure” also has an extended resonance. The emotionally crippled Berg has “no difficulty with anything. Everything was easy; nothing weighed heavily.” But it is this soothing weightlessness, both national and personal, which Schlink wishes the reader to question.

By Part Two, Hanna is standing trial as a concentration-camp guard, and Berg, a law student, is coincidentally studying the case. This takes place in the mid-1960s, seven years after the end of his relationship with Hanna, about whom he is still guiltily obsessed. The refusal to come to terms with the past, beyond the usual clichés, is now skillfully embodied in Berg's darker understanding of Hanna. The mature Berg mocks his youthful need to “explore the past”, and contrasts such banal certainties with his troubled, ambiguous and often amoral attachment to Hanna. Even when he hears the worst of her crimes, he can hardly separate himself from her, for she has, on a psychic level, shaped his emotional life. But Schlink cleverly avoids easy allegory. The point is that Berg's recollections of Hanna are “overlaid” by the “faces she had later”. The novel becomes a palimpsest of memory, bringing together different versions of the past which have to be painfully weighed one against the other.

Schlink is all too conscious of the dangers of understanding the past, both from Hanna's viewpoint and from that of those murdered in the concentration camps. In one reading of her exploits—which gives the novel its final twist—Hanna is essentially a victim of her own unwarranted pride and shame. Her penchant for uniforms again guiltily attracts Berg, and he is well aware of her pornographic counterparts in this regard. But Schlink wants his readers to work hard at having an emotional involvement with the past that goes beyond the customary pieties or the commonplace images which disable feeling.

The only false note comes in the final section, when Schlink, rather forcedly, introduces a Jewish witness to the horrors of the camp, so as to give the novel some moral ballast. If morality, however, only resides in the victims of Nazism, then his account of contemporary Germany seems unnecessarily cynical. Perhaps the point is that readers of history must make themselves vulnerable in connection with the past. But if this is the case, why exclude the Jewish victims (as the novel's ultimately banal conscience) from this struggle? Such is the importance of The Reader that, in the end, we expect far more from it than any work of fiction could possibly offer.

Toby Mundy (review date 9 January 1998)

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SOURCE: Mundy, Toby. “The Terrible Secret of the Older Woman.” New Statesman 127, no. 4637 (9 January 1998): 44.

[In the following review, Mundy lauds Schlink's depiction of the German consciousness in The Reader, noting that the novel “reminds us of the ghostly immanence of the Nazi past in every aspect of postwar Germany.”]

“If only it were all so simple!”, Solzhenitsyn once wrote. “If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Bernard Schlink's magnificent chiaroscuro novel The Reader grapples with the legacy of those who carried out the Final Solution to tackle head on Solzhenitsyn's discomforting question.

Told in part as a rite-of-passage tale, in part as courtroom drama, this highly original contribution to the literature of the Holocaust is also a meditation on the precarious architecture of secrecy. It opens with an account of the intoxicating force of erotic love. Michael Berg, aged 15, embarks on a passionate clandestine affair with Hanna, an orderly, fastidious woman in her mid-thirties, much concerned with cleanliness.

At first their alliance develops conventionally: she bathes him, they make love, they sleep. Later, at her request, he reads to her before they have sex. Michael, like many adolescent boys, believes that women inhabit a secret world, that their movements, thoughts and desires are motivated by some remote and enigmatic principle. Thus the lacunae in Hanna's personal history (“Her life,” he declares at one point, “was elsewhere.”) serve only to increase her allure.

To sustain his affair, Michael fashions an expanding web of evasion, petty crime and deception. Then one day, without warning, Hanna disappears. It is some years before Michael sees her again. During his law degree course, his seminar group observe the War Crimes trial of a collection of Auschwitz guards charged with murdering more than 200 Jewish women. Hanna is one of the accused. Throughout her amour with Michael, Hanna had something to hide much larger and more terrible than a pubescent lover.

It is easy to see why The Reader has been a best-seller in Schlink's native Germany. Written with economy and verisimilitude, it reminds us of the ghostly immanence of the Nazi past in every aspect of postwar Germany. It shows how, without warning, the pressurised mental compartments that hold the secret histories of those who served in the war can be blown open to flood daily life with unimaginable horror. “Monsters,” as Michael puts it, “have come grinning out of the patterns on the curtains and the carpet.”

Schlink lays bare the agony of Germany's postwar generation without diminishing the profanities perpetrated by many of their parents. In the struggle to understand their crimes, the children of the Reich come up sharp against the guilty feeling that, in doing so, they are somehow failing to condemn. But when they do condemn them, as they know they must, there is no room for understanding. The Reader elucidates this dreadful irony without exculpating indifference, cruelty and genocide.

Eva Hoffman (review date 23 March 1998)

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SOURCE: Hoffman, Eva. “The Uses of Illiteracy.” New Republic 218, no. 12 (23 March 1998): 33-6.

[In the following review, Hoffman praises Schlink's narrative in The Reader, but cites shortcomings in Schlink's study of Hanna's subjective states and the novel's suggestion that literacy engenders moral cultivation.]

Several years ago I was asked to participate in a public discussion with a German author who had written a memoir about the anguish and the guilt of growing up as a daughter of a minor Nazi functionary. I spent some time wondering whether I could work up the requisite sympathy for her plight; and I came to the conclusion that sympathy was warranted. As I read more memoirs and studies on this subject, I began to think that the difficulties faced by the “second generation” in Germany were in their way as painful as the problems often experienced by children of Holocaust survivors. For the inheritors of the Nazi legacy, a moral life seemed to require a condemnation of their parents—an excruciating, an almost impossible, conflict. How do you feel about someone you love whom you have a duty to hate?

This predicament is at the heart of The Reader, a brief, restrained novel by Bernhard Schlink. It has been published to great acclaim in several European countries; and its success—following on the enraptured reception of The Emigrants, another semifictional work by a German writer, W. G. Sebald, that obliquely explores Holocaust themes—undoubtedly reflects the new fascination with the role and the responsibility of ordinary Germans in that terrible crime.

Most fiction about the Holocaust begins with the experience of victims and survivors. Schlink proposes to examine, from the perspective of the second generation, the mind and the darkly ambiguous past of a perpetrator. And unlike many novels on that subject, which attempt to recreate the inner world of their characters through linguistic and imaginative intensity, The Reader works more like a fictionalized essay, or even a polemic, about the figure at its center. Schlink, who was born in 1944, is the author of crime fiction, as well as a professor of law at the University of Berlin and a judge, and his new work bears the hallmarks of his favored genre. The prose (in an admirably controlled translation by Carol Brown Janeway) is clear and spare, the chapters short, the plot tight and streamlined. But the crime in this novel is enormous enough to call for philosophical investigation; and within the stylistic framework of a swiftly paced detective story, Schlink has indeed composed a kind of philosophical parable.

In a way, The Reader is a very old-fashioned work. Its tone is sincere to the point of earnestness, its formulations are classical, its mode of address frankly direct. It is as if the gravity of the subject precludes fictive games or a purely aesthetic suspension of disbelief. But such a strategy carries its own dangers. The novel is serious, searching, sometimes daring; and its meditations gratifyingly combine highmindedness and accessibility. Yet the seeming transparency conceals an odd opaqueness. There are unspoken implications and narrative gaps that leave this reader, at least, very uneasy.

The events in The Reader are recounted by one Michael Berg, the novel's governing consciousness as well as its narrator, through a series of compressed, sharply etched recollections. Act One, as it were, takes place in an unnamed German city in the 1950s. It opens with an infection and an illicit love affair. The narrator, who is 15 years old at the time, suffers a racking attack of hepatitis on the street and is rescued by an older woman named Hanna. He finds himself almost hypnotically drawn to her, and when he goes back to thank her, she offers herself sexually, without fuss or apology. Despite the disparity in their ages—Hanna is 36 and old enough to be his mother—the liaison unfolds with a sense of rightness, with a fierce inevitability.

Hanna is convincingly portrayed as a woman whose attractiveness resides in her sturdiness and her physical ease, in a lack of selfconsciousness that amounts either to obliviousness or a kind of integrity. The romance takes place in an encapsulated space in which ordinary rules of social intercourse are suspended. Hanna tells the narrator almost nothing about herself, except that she works as a streetcar conductor. He can carry on the affair only if she remains sealed off from his family and schoolmates. Their meetings consist mostly of bathing and lovemaking. Then, at her behest, the ritual begins to include intimate literary sessions, in which the narrator reads to her as a prelude to sex.

Schlink evokes the atmosphere in which the affair takes place—the shabby grandeur of Hanna's building, the odorous languor of her apartment, the slow luxury of the erotic encounters—in deft, economical strokes. In a way, the fictional apparatus of the novel is minimal. There are few extended scenes, few moments of heightened metaphoric density or “thick description.” Indeed, for all the sensuality of the early tableaux, The Reader gradually acquires some of the severity of a legal or logical argument, in which propositions are set forth and then tested from various points of view.

In describing the emotional calculus of the affair, Schlink keeps turning the lens so that the picture falls into different configurations. Initially Hanna easily dominates her young lover, whom she calls “kid,” through sheer sexual authority. In worldly terms, however, the advantage is all on his side. He comes from a proper, chilly, middle-class family—his father is a philosopher, an expert on Kant—and he is on his way to a good education and a successful career. Hanna envies and admires his access to these goods, and she is hungry for the books he shares with her. As the affair progresses, the balance of power shifts. She allows him to take the lead in various activities and suffers moments of inexplicable pique. He learns that he has the power to hurt her. As he is gradually drawn into the life of his peers, he begins, in imperceptible ways, to distance himself from her, to “disavow” her. Then one day, for no apparent reason, Hanna leaves her job and vanishes.

Act Two consists of detection and discovery; and in order to make the book intelligible, some of the surprises must be disclosed here. A few years after Hanna's disappearance, the narrator, who has started studying law, recognizes her as one of the defendants in a trial of former concentration camp guards that he is observing. It transpires that Hanna served as a guard in Auschwitz and in a “small camp near Cracow.” Even more horribly, she was one of several wardens accompanying a group of Jewish women on a death march. Along with the others, she failed to come to the prisoners' rescue when they were set on fire during a night-time bombing raid and burned to death in a locked village church.

But Hanna has also another secret, which the narrator deduces from various retrospective clues. It is that she is illiterate. Once he stumbles on the solution to this riddle, much that was puzzling about his former lover—her bafflement, her rage—begins to make sense. The narrator also realizes that, while by any overt measure her wartime deeds are the far more awful fact, for Hanna her illiteracy is her really shameful secret, the prior wound that determines all her subsequent decisions. It is her illiteracy that induces her to sign up with the SS in the first place, rather than risk exposure in the Siemens factory where she works. It is the same dread of humiliation that forces her to flee her street conductor's job when she is offered promotion, and leads her to incriminate herself in court for transgressions that she did not commit and to accept a harsher sentence than her less honest and more brazen codefendants.

Is she, then, a kind of victim herself? The narrator is careful to avoid this equation; but the two revelations about Hanna leave him with a distressing double vision. She emerges as a perpetrator of atrocities, and she is someone driven to protect her dignity and her psychic survival. The ambiguities of her actions converge on the charged trope of reading, as a witness testifies that in the concentration camp Hanna singled out the most frail inmates and ordered them to read to her before they were transported to Auschwitz. To the audience and the jury at the trial, this seems like a particularly perverse form of cruelty. To the narrator, the twisted rite carries suggestions of Hanna's vulnerability, and perhaps even of her kindness: he believes that she chose the most delicate inmates in order to make the last months before their deaths more bearable.

Who, then, is Hanna, and which evidence is the narrator to trust? Is she a temperamental sadist, or a marginal person acting out of defensiveness and fear? A callous manipulator who abused him during their affair, or a woman moved by confusion and need? The narrator believes that Hanna's crimes deserve punishment; and yet he cannot see her as wholly culpable or wholly evil. The latter part of the novel is given over to Michael Berg's struggle, as he tries to come to terms with these wrenching paradoxes and the history that Hanna signifies.

To some extent, the stages of his journey parallel the wider postwar response to the Holocaust. His first encounter with the details of life in the camps plunges him into a state of shock, followed by a kind of deadly numbness—a state of paralysis, he provocatively suggests, that characterized everyone in the camps themselves, from the inmates to the guards. He has distressing fantasies of Hanna as a pornographic Nazi mistress. He becomes alert to signs of nastiness and to traces of Nazism in the ordinary world around him. He visits a concentration camp and is ashamed of his inability to envision what happened there, and of his desire afterwards to find a good restaurant. A few years after the trial, the narrator withdraws from the active practice of law, because he is unable to play the part of the prosecution or the defense; he has witnessed a public miscarriage of justice in Hanna's trial, and he finds private truth too complex for unequivocal judgment. For all his attempts to purge Hanna from his mind, his marriage and his other relationships fail as a consequence of her primacy in his psyche.

But even as he observes his fastidious sensitivities, the narrator questions the authenticity of his sentiments. Schlink is astute about the postures adopted by his contemporaries toward the Holocaust: the reduction of catastrophe to a few stark images, the injunction not to “compare the incomparable,” the temptations of facile identification or righteousness. “That some few would be convicted and punished while we of the second generation were silenced by revulsion, shame, and guilt—was that all there was to it now?” the narrator rhetorically asks, and it is the chief merit of The Reader that it refuses to accept this as the end of the matter, and tries to move its inquiry beyond awe or piety.

In the last sections of the novel, 20 years are telescoped into a few dramatic turns of narrative. Eight years into Hanna's imprisonment, Michael Berg begins to read to her again, by means of a tape-recorder, and sends the cassettes to her without any comment. Some time later, he starts receiving clumsily handwritten notes from her, with remarks on the books that he has chosen. Hanna has become literate, and turns out to be a perceptive if uneducated critic.

A decade later, Hanna's plea for clemency is granted and the narrator has to contemplate, with considerable reluctance, her reentry into his life. He visits her in prison on a single occasion, to find an aging and no longer desirable woman. Then, the day before her release, he learns that she has committed suicide. Her death is yet another enigma for him to “read,” to subject to the uncertainties of interpretation. But the scheme of the novel strongly suggests that Hanna killed herself partly as a result of her late-won literacy, because she could not bear to know what she had done. The shelf in her cell contains books on the Holocaust, which presumably allowed her finally to grasp the full measure of the horror in which she participated.

There is still a further twist of the plot, which for the narrator constitutes a kind of catharsis and reconciliation. How we read this narrative as a whole depends very much on what we make of the central theme of reading and its symbolic uses in the novel. Schlink plays variations on this motif with ingenuity, and in at least two registers. In one, “reading” is treated in its metaphoric sense, as an exercise in decoding and interpreting; and in this sense the novel is about the problem of reading, the difficulties of fathoming human character, motivations, deeds. Schlink is subtle about the dynamics of power inherent in this semiotic transaction. In one sense, Hanna looms powerfully over the narrator's life; the past infects and burdens the present. At the same time, however, his generational position confers on him an advantage, since it places him in the role of the observer, the analyst, the critic—the superior reader.

He may judge; she may only be judged. Yet the narrator recognizes that his position is not only a form of safety, but also a form of bad faith. This is one of the novel's finer discriminations. He is above suspicion because he is unimplicated and untested by history. By the more intimate criteria of his conscience, however, he is neither completely self-knowing nor completely blameless. In entering into the affair with Hanna, he was driven by obscure, half-conscious impulses; and when she became inconvenient, he disowned and betrayed her. He is capable of cold detachment, which masquerades as generalized compassion. It is only when he becomes a writer as well as a reader that he puts himself on the line, in the position of engagement. And it is when he submits his stories to Hanna's readings that he accords her parity, or the right to judge him as well.

The other strand of the “reading” theme has to do with the word's literal meaning, and all its resonances of erudition, taste, culture; and it is in his treatment of this seemingly innocent motif that Schlink enters murkier waters. In linking illiteracy and brutality, Schlink is introducing explanatory ideas about the Holocaust that have been deeply discredited precisely by that event. It has been noted often enough that reading Goethe and listening to Beethoven did not prevent the Nazi elite from planning or executing genocide; and after such lessons, the uncritical belief that good books make good people is rather hard to sustain.

The Reader is clearly designed as a deliberate countermove in this argument. Culture civilizes, Schlink seems to insist; and ignorance can make us barbaric. The narrator's love of literature is closely tied to his ethical refinement. Moreover, as if to underscore his intention to reclaim literature from post-Holocaust disillusionment, Schlink weighs the narrator's list heavily toward German classics—the literary tradition which, for some, was most tainted by association. Conversely, Hanna's illiteracy in the novel is supposed to account for a moral obtuseness so extreme as to render irrelevant the notions of culpability and responsible choice. The possibility that she may have done something wrong does not occur to her until the trial, and her moral sense develops only with her access to the written word.

The narrative here seems to be based on some highly questionable assumptions. Is it plausible to suppose that this woman did not understand the meaning of her work in the camps because she did not get a proper education? That she would have been less willing to inflict suffering if she had gone to high school? That she could not respond to the suffering around her because she had not read poetry?

To be fair, this is not quite what the novel suggests; illiteracy in the story stands not only for the deficiency of book-learning, but also for the inability to decipher the world and the attendant helplessness. Owing to her insulation, Hanna gets caught in situations that she has not chosen, and whose wider context, meanings, implications she cannot grasp. Nor is this a premise to be dismissed too glibly. Culture may not be a reliable agent of benignness; but severe cultural deprivation may certainly have malign effects. And yet Schlink's invention remains hard to justify. The notion that Hanna literally did not know what she was doing, that she was blind to the extremities of brutality around her, because she could not read, is a dubious premise for a novel, and for a view of the catastrophe.

The problem with The Reader is that Hanna's illiteracy remains an empty sign, a notional explanation much too cool for the novel's diabolical subject. Hanna's character in the entire story is filtered through the narrator's vision and voice; but her wartime past in particular is presented so sparsely, and at such a speculative remove, that the force of her ignorance in that situation is never persuasively shown. In order to give credence to the connection between illiteracy and character, we would need a fuller, more strenuous recreation of her activity in the camps, her feelings, her impressions, her reactions, the clash of her naïveté with her complicity in the horror.

When Schlink does give us glimpses of Hanna's inner life, he can be very effective. He describes the crucial episode in the death march both from her standpoint and from the standpoint of her victims, and has the narrator conjecture about her fear and confusion, as the locked church turns into a burning inferno. This is harrowing to read. Our first instinct is to recoil from having to imagine Hanna's part in this scene; and yet the unflinching calm with which her minute calculations are reconstructed forces us to acknowledge the possibility of someone in her position making deadly mistakes out of disorientation, choicelessness, panic. Evil works in many ways, and can be the result of an individual's weakness as well as an individual's strength. From fragments of her own testimony, it is clear that Hanna isn't sure even in the courtroom how she could have acted differently, nor can anyone tell her.

But such close-ups are rare. Most of the time, Hanna is observed in a neutral middle distance, which obviates the necessity of full engagement. Schlink has created a protagonist endowed with a conveniently partial knowledge of the “problem” character. The narrator knows Hanna enough to see her as fleshly, frightened, human; but he does not have enough access to her subjectivity or her past to allow him to grapple directly with the reality of her actions. In purely fictional terms, Hanna is most vividly portrayed as a lover, but we see nothing of her sinister work in the camps. This is an evasion, and it undermines the novel's case for, or about, Hanna. The novel's presentation of that case is unsupported by the kind of exploration that would permit us to see Hanna as a three-dimensional figure; and therefore we are left with the suspicion that the impulse to exonerate her, so palpable in the novel, is based on spurious grounds and partial evidence.

Still, the quandary posed in Schlink's novel is real enough, and it does not admit of easy resolution. How are we to understand someone such as Hanna—an ordinary person capable of desire and yearning, who turns her hand to monstrous work for a time? By what criteria is she to be appraised, and what would constitute true justice toward her? What is demanded of us in retribution or compassion? The conclusion of the book does not entail simple forgiveness. Instead, the narrator decides to treat Hanna as a free person in the Kantian sense—that is, as someone responsible for all her choices. (This is a novel for which the Prolegomenon to a Metaphysics of Morals would make useful background reading.) But he also realizes that he cannot undo the ties that bind him to Hanna. He must accept the consequences of his Oedipal love, even if he didn't know who it was exactly that he loved.

Schlink is at his best in analyzing the symptoms and the syndromes of the second generation: its convolutions of conscience, its tormented search for truth, its comfortable self-deceptions. He has the courage to say a few honest things about delicate and difficult matters, and to admit ambivalence about a subject which in our time stands for moral absolutes. The Reader does not carry its investigation into the destructive side of the human soul far enough, but in trying to come to terms with the most forbidding aspects of the Holocaust, it offers a gravity of purpose, an acknowledgment of complexity, and a sober, measured tone. It deserves a commensurate reader.

D. J. Enright (review date 26 March 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2524

SOURCE: Enright, D. J. “Modern Love.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 5 (26 March 1998): 4-5.

[In the following review, Enright concludes that The Reader is a deeply troubling book in which the agonizing moral dilemmas of the Holocaust are revisited and left unresolved.]

Rarely can a novel of this modest size have made such demands on its readers. The more slowly and carefully you follow the narrative [in The Reader], the more tortuous, unsettled, and uncertain or ambivalent it grows, and the more difficult to epitomize. Such, we suppose, is to be expected of what is concurrently a small, personal attempt at sustained moral accounting and a large, public one.

The opening promises a relatively simple story in an established genre, that of the education sentimentale. Michael Berg, a fifteen-year-old German schoolboy, is violently sick in the street, and “when rescue came, it was almost an assault.” (Virtually every phrase here has its significance, even though the significances, often at variance with one another, are not going to add up neatly.) A woman, a stranger, hauls him into a courtyard, briskly washes him clean with tap water, and escorts him home. His sickness is diagnosed as hepatitis. Some four months later, at his mother's instigation, he calls on the woman, with a bunch of flowers to thank her. Her name is Hanna Schmitz, she is thirty-six-years old, with ash-blond-hair and “a broad-planed, strong, womanly face,” and she works as a streetcar conductor.

Michael finds her beautiful, the first woman he has desired, and begins to fantasize about her. “As the days went on, I discovered that I couldn't stop thinking sinful thoughts. In which case I also wanted the sin itself.” He visits her again, reasoning that, dangerous as this may be, it would be more dangerous to become trapped in fantasies, and anyway Frau Schmitz will merely be polite to him and send him on his way. “That is how I rationalized it back then, making my desire an entry in a strange moral accounting, and silencing my bad conscience”; a series of rationalizations is to follow. Before long—after he has dirtied himself fetching scuttles of coal for her and has to take a bath—they make love.

The next night, he knows he is in love with Hanna. Was that, he will ask himself in the future, when hindsight has failed to bring wisdom, the price for her having gone to bed with him? “To this day, after spending the night with a woman, I feel I've been indulged and I must make it up somehow—to her by trying at least to love her, and to the world by facing up to it.” Though much is made of Michael's obsession with Hanna, and by implication the distortion of his emotional life this brings about, the suspicion sets in that there is some other obsession or distortion, deep within him, independent of Hanna. Yet their lovemaking is genuinely passionate, zestful, a little rough on occasion. They fall into a routine: at her request (“You have such a nice voice, kid”) he reads to her from his school texts, Schiller's Intrigues and Love, Lessing's Emilia Galotti, Eichendorff's Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing; they take a shower; they make love; they lie quietly together. Over the Easter holiday—Michael's parents, glad that he is well again and keen to get out and about, are oddly incurious—the two go on a four-day cycling trip along the Rhine, registering at inns as mother and son.

Eventually his generation reclaims him, in part; he spends the summer afternoons at the swimming pool with Sophie and other schoolmates. Important though she is to him, he cannot tell them about Hanna. At first he doesn't feel close enough to his friends; then the right moment, and the right words, fail him; and then it is too late. Thus he rationalizes, without believing, in his rationalizations: he is “denying” Hanna, and he feels guilty. One afternoon, at the swimming pool, he sees her standing at some distance. Instead of running spontaneously to her, he cogitates: Why is she at the pool? Does she want to be seen with him? Does he want to be seen with her? When at last he gets to his feet, she has gone. Gone for good, it appears, without trace, for the streetcar company knows nothing of her whereabouts, nor does the owner of the building in which she lived. Michael yearns for her body, but more powerful is his sense of guilt, of betrayal: “Leaving was her punishment.”

Michael finishes school, and takes up law studies at a university. His life is effortless: “everything was easy; nothing weighed heavily,” neither work nor relationships. Nothing could touch him, it seemed: he involved himself in nothing, as if he had decided never to let himself be humiliated again, never to feel guilty, never to love anyone whom it would hurt to lose. He marries a fellow student and has a daughter, but the marriage—to someone he could lose without it hurting too much—doesn't last long. Again, we doubt that this emotional paralysis can be solely attributed to Hanna and his love for her; something in his character, more than any extraneous circumstance, has shaped his destiny.

When Michael next sees Hanna, it is in a courtroom, circa 1965. He is part of a seminar group that is investigating such questions as retroactive justice (and its absence). For instance, while concentration-camp guards were contravening ordinances on the statute book at the time of their crimes, they were not acting against the laws as actually interpreted and applied at that time. The students have no doubts about their guilt, or the collective and continuing guilt of others. They are intent on exposing and reviving the past, and bringing shame on their parents, even if the parents are apparently innocent. (Under the Nazis, Michael's father lost his job, teaching philosophy, because he had announced a lecture on Spinoza.) It is sufficient that after 1945 they had tolerated the criminals in their midst. Michael finds comfort in sharing a common passion with his companions, in feeling that he “belongs,” but later, in his self-subverting fashion, he speaks of the “swaggering self-righteousness” of the students. “How could one feel guilt and shame, and at the same time parade one's self-righteousness?”

As it happens, Michael is attending the trial of several former camp guards, all women, accused of war crimes, in order to gather data for the seminar. His first reaction on seeing Hanna in the dock—not one of surprise or distress—is to suppose she must be guilty, not so much because of the gravity of the charges she faces as because in a prison cell she will be safely out of his life, continuing as a mere memory. Or so he deludes himself. “I recognized her, but I felt nothing. Nothing at all.”

The trial goes badly for Hanna. She had turned down an offer of promotion at the Siemens factory in Berlin, and joined the SS instead, serving in Auschwitz and then, until the winter of 1944-1945, in a small satellite camp for women near Cracow. It was there while the prisoners were locked in a church, that misdirected bombs set the village on fire. The guards made no attempt to unlock the doors. The four other defendants allege that it was Hanna who wrote the report on the incident; found in SS archives; they claim that the report is inaccurate, and that this proves that Hanna was the prime agent in the crime they are unfairly accused of.

Only now—late in the day for one so sharp-witted—does it dawn on Michael that Hanna is illiterate. She couldn't have written the report. She had turned down the foreman's job at Siemens because she couldn't read or write. It was not to satisfy her perverted desires, as the other defendants insinuate, that she invited her “favorites,” frail young prisoners, into her quarters; it was so that they could read to her—and, it might be, that they should have a few days or weeks of rest from forced labor before being “selected” for return to Auschwitz and for death. Hanna was too proud to tell Michael of her illiteracy: she is too proud to tell the court, even in her own defense. Not that Michael leaves it at that; he speculates, he adduces a variety of possible reasons for her behavior, as if she, the woman he loved or still loves, is a more than usually complicated sort of animal in a research laboratory.

“If I was not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal.” Michael says that during the weeks of the trial he felt nothing he shared in the numbness that affected everyone in the courtroom. He asks himself in a passage that lies near the heart of the book:

What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to inquire is to make the horrors an object of discussion, even if the horrors themselves are not questioned, instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt. Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt? To what purpose? … That some few would be convicted and punished while we of the second generation were silenced by revulsion, shame, and guilt—was that all there was to it now?

Michael's feelings are customarily strong, even manifestly anguished, yet so splintered by his relentless intellectualizing, and set at odds, that they cancel out. But they do not evaporate; they persist.

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.

The effect on Michael of the trial is to make prosecution seem “as grotesque a simplification as defense,” and judging “the most grotesque oversimplification of all.” Given his powers of intricate argumentation, one might think of him as potentially an able lawyer; not a judge, though, for he would never reach or condone a verdict. As it is, rather than practice law, he chooses to teach its history.

Hanna is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Over the eighteen years that follow, Michael tapes his readings of The Odyssey, Chekhov and Schnitzler, Kafka and Heine, and sends the cassettes to her. In the fourth year a note arrives: “Kid, the last story was especially nice. Thank you. Hanna.” She has taught herself to read and write. But not one word does Michael write to her. This procedure “was so normal and familiar, and Hanna was both close and removed in such an easy way, that I could have continued the situation indefinitely. That was comfortable and selfish. I know.” Then the prison warden writes that Hanna is likely to be released soon, and perhaps, since Michael is her only contact with the outside world, he could help by finding her a small apartment and something to do. He visits her a week before she is to be released. She has thickened: she, whose smell he had loved, smells like an old woman. Hanna senses his reactions. Despite misgivings about the “actual closeness” this will involve, he finds her somewhere to live and a job with a Greek tailor. In the early hours of the day set for release, Hanna hangs herself. In her cell Michael notices the books she had ordered for herself: Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski … And, in a fine touch, the warden tells him how Hanna had once staged a sit-down strike until cuts in the prison's library funding were restored.

Hanna has saved some money, and leaves a note asking Michael to take it to a young woman, a camp inmate who survived the fire in the church, so that she may decide what to do with it. The woman, now living in New York, refuses to accept the money: “Using it for something to do with the Holocaust would really seem like an absolution to me, and that is something I neither wish nor care to grant.” Then, Michael suggests, perhaps it should go to an organization concerned with illiteracy, preferably a Jewish one. Preempting the reader's gratified recognition of the sole moment of humor in the book, the woman remarks that illiteracy is hardly a Jewish problem. She allows, though, that if there is an organization for something, for anything, there's bound to be a Jewish organization for it. He sends the money to the Jewish League Against Illiteracy, and receives a letter thanking Ms. Hanna Schmitz for her donation. Then, for the first and only time, he visits Hanna's grave. And there the story ends. Though not without Michael interrogating himself about his motives for writing it down: To be free of it? To capture it before it slipped out of memory? Or because, whether sad or happy or both or neither, it was true? “Maybe I did write our story to be free of it, even if I never can be.”

A counterpointing of two stories, or a story and a history, of victim and victimizer, culpability and disavowal, indictment and extenuation … Bernhard Schlink has taken on a grievously formidable subject. Primo Levi and the other authors found in Hanna's cell were, if one dare express it so, the happy ones, recording at first hand, with the freshness and force of the moment, the unbelievable yet unarguable, untrammeled by the welter of complicity and recrimination, mitigation and atonement, agonizing and numbness, which Schlink has described so searchingly. (And which the translator, it should be mentioned, has rendered so convincingly.) Both the author and his creation, Michael, are professors of law, and subject to the troublesome fact that not everything is as clear-cut, definitive, and amenable to just legal process as might be desired. The Greeks, knowing that we never enter the same river twice, couldn't believe in homecoming. Michael observes that Odysseus returned home not to stay but to set off again. “The Odyssey is the story of motion both purposeful and purposeless, successful and futile. What else is the history of law?”

We praise books that, as we say, make us think. The Reader makes us think too much about things we would rather not think about, issues which the book leaves open and we might wish to have closed one way or another. This can only be a grim and arduous experience.

Millicent Bell (review date 1999)

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SOURCE: Bell, Millicent. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 66, no. 3 (1999): 417-30.

[In the following excerpt, Bell evaluates the strengths and the weaknesses of The Reader.]

There are the novelists who cannot give us enough of life; they cram down our throats more than we can easily swallow, and we nearly choke on a mass of characters and scenes and intertangled plots, and on the macro-history of social movements, politics, war, revolution and economic change, as well as the micro-history of souls. They demand that we take into ourselves a whole potful of reality because this, they urge, is the only way to understand what happens. And there are novelists who elect to serve the small sample, or the distilled essence of individual relationships—just that. The writers of this second kind also claim to give us the knowledge that will explain our lives; everything we need to know is contained in the story of how a few persons feel about one another, they seem to say—all of history in the larger world is implied in a spoonful. …

In [a] novel of two hundred small pages, Bernhard Schlink's The Reader tells us what seems at first a timeless love story. It is only after forty pages that we can place the period in which it transpires by the casual mention that fifteen-year-old Michael Berg has been reading in his schoolbooks about the recent German past of the Third Reich. It all begins with a day when young Michael, suddenly coming down with hepatitis, collapses, vomiting, in the street on his way home from school. A strange woman washes his face in the courtyard of her building and helps him to his own house. When, after weeks, he is well enough to go out, his mother suggests that he go back to thank his rescuer and bring her a bunch of flowers. What happens, however, is the start of a love affair. With a remarkable simplicity and immediacy, Schlink tells the familiar tale of initiatory sexual passion as though it has never been told before. The older man who is relating this experience of his youth recovers moment after moment in all their incorruptible freshness. On the visit with the flowers he glimpses the woman as she pulls on her stocking and perceives, without consciously recognizing it, that she is beautiful: “slow-flowing, graceful, seductive—a seductiveness that had nothing to do with breasts and hips and legs, but was an invitation to forget the world in the recesses of the body”—and she catches his stare. He comes again, and is asked to carry up a scuttle of coal from the cellar, dirties himself in the process, is given a bath and wrapped dry while, feeling his instant arousal, she tells him, “That's why you're here.” So, the schoolboy becomes a lover who learns not only how to receive but how to give pleasure, although the woman he loves is thirty-six. She is a streetcar conductor who often works a late shift, and he soon falls into the routine of finding her at home between the end of his schoolday and his family's suppertime.

He soon feels superior to his schoolmates—and a little detached from them. He is someone with a secret life he learns to protect, successfully concealing his visits to the person who has become the center of his life, working harder at his school work to make up for his hours of joy. The older man recalls, “My days had never been so full and my life had never been so swift and so dense.” Coming in to supper one time, he discovers that even his family have become part of a lost world:

I felt as if we were sitting together for the last time around the round table under the five-armed, five-candled brass chandelier, as if we were eating our last meal off the old plates with the green vine-leaf border, as if we would never talk to each other so intimately again. I felt as if I were saying goodbye. I was still there and already gone. I was homesick for my mother and father and my brother and sisters, and I longed to be with the woman.

There is little talk and, despite the intensification of intimacy, little growth of acquaintance in the ordinary sense between young Michael and “the woman.” He knows nothing much about Frau Schmitz's past, and only after half a dozen visits does he learn that her first name is Hanna. They have fights he does not understand. She makes him angry when, impatient to see her, he boards her streetcar and she ignores him, continuing to joke with the driver. He arouses her incomprehensible fury when they take a four-day bike trip together. Having gone off to fetch breakfast while she is still asleep, he returns to find her livid, and she thrashes him with her belt. Only much later does he understand that she could not have read the note he left on the night table, and thought herself abandoned. The middle-class boy who probably has never met an illiterate person did not guess the real reason she loves to have him read to her from the classic German literature texts in his school bag—and that her shame compels her to conceal this reason. In any case, he has already begun to betray her by pretending to friends that they know him completely. Once, she comes to the public swimming pool when he is there with pals, and he glimpses her watching from a distance, but makes no sign. And then, she is gone without warning, her flat vacated, her new location unknown.

In the second half of the book the world and history enter. When Berg sees Hanna again, it is seven years later in a courtroom. He is now a law student, and he has dropped in to watch one of the many trials of rank-and-file Nazi criminals belatedly taking place. Hanna appears among the accused. She is being tried for her role as a guard in Auschwitz. As the trial progresses it becomes plain that she had taken part in the selection of prisoners to be sent to the furnaces, though she sometimes managed to give some of the younger, weaker girls another few weeks of life; it is said that she made these “favorites” read to her in the evenings. Then, when a barn in which some of the prisoners had been locked was set on fire during a bombing, she and the other guards failed to open the doors. Hanna responds to both charges—as the accused in such trials generally do—that the guards had no alternative. They had only done what they had to.

Her own responsibility may have been a bit less than charged. Berg knows, now, that she could not have drawn up the protocols and reports she is accused of writing—though she admits to having done so—still hiding her illiteracy. He thinks of telling this to the judge on the possibility that her sentence might be mitigated. But he fails to do so. The narrator remembers how his feelings seemed “numbed” during the trial. As he gazes across the space of the court at the woman whose body was so thoroughly known to him, he feels no involvement. And it is a numbness he detects in others—even the judges. And he reflects, now, that this same numbness must have been felt, at the time, by the victims as well as the perpetrators of the horrors of the death camps. The prisoners, themselves, as survivor literature describes, must often have entered the state “in which life's functions are reduced to a minimum, behavior becomes completely selfish and indifferent to others, and gassing and burning are everyday occurrences.” He observes, too, that this same numbness has overcome the generation to which he belongs. “That some few would be convicted and punished while we of the second generation were silenced by revulsion, shame and guilt—was that all that was to it now?” The story has some continuity for us to discover beyond the moment when Hanna is sentenced—a continuity in which he does not attempt to recover any intimate relation with “the woman” of his youth though he sends her tape recordings. Eventually, she learns to read, and educates herself in prison, but when she is about to be released, she hangs herself, and she leaves her savings to Holocaust victims. For Berg, the numbness remains.

Michelle Haines Thomas (review date May 1999)

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SOURCE: Thomas, Michelle Haines. “Love and Indifference.” Quadrant 43, no. 5 (May 1999): 85-6.

[In the following review, Thomas praises Schlink's examination of German history in The Reader.]

Holocaust literature is an overburdened realm. The moral freight that accompanies even the slightest efforts in this genre can sit heavily with reviewers and readers alike and has resulted in the honouring of some rather lightweight novels purely on the basis of their subject matter. I hate to bring it up again but (gulp) The Hand that Signed the Paper is a case in point. Despite the initial fracas, time and a bit of perspective have shown that the book was a largely insignificant work of fiction.

I must admit that I thought something similar was happening with Bernhard Schlink's The Reader after I read the first section. It had been recommended to me in the highest terms and was stamped with a whole swag of reviewers' endorsements, such as one which called it an “extraordinary novel” and one which suggested it would reveal to readers “the nature of atonement”. High praise indeed and more than I thought this slim German novel deserved—so far.

It was certainly elegantly put together, with a sparse, understated style that seemed to hold back more than it displayed. The story concerned a young boy in love with a much older woman, and very gently and eloquently detailed his erotic coming of age. It was fine, controlled writing, quite beautiful but hardly the moral tour-de-force I had been led to expect. What was I missing?

What I was missing was the second half of the novel, which delivers the awaited emotional and philosophical punch with the force of a hammer. Or perhaps a scalpel is a better symbol, for the novel's cut—when it comes—is sharp, precise and restrained.

It is difficult to detail the ensuing complexities without stealing some of the novel's narrative thunder. Suffice to say, the young boy's lover is brought before a Nazi war crime trial which in turn becomes the vehicle for an exploration of Germany's past, the feelings of guilt experienced by the following generation and the necessary squaring up between the old and the young. The fact that Schlink chose to dramatise this through the relationship between a young man and an older woman, rather than the more expected father-son dichotomy, is a sign of his reluctance to toe any conventional narrative line. It also forces a stronger sense of collusion between the young narrator and his lover, who is at the same time his moral and social enemy. Just as he is coming to grasp his future direction, becoming a man, he is trapped by this most intimate alliance with a world he is choosing to reject. He is forced to find both love and condemnation for this past from which he cannot distance himself and, eventually, make peace with it. Had Schlink instead set the son up against the father, he would have had a harder time convincing the reader of the need to wrestle towards reconciliation. People find it much easier to believe in a son abandoning a father's values and moving on, than a man dumping a woman whom he chose and loved freely.

It is a neat picture of how a Germany not long out of war was forced to turn and denounce its recent past, entangled as it still was in old relationships and old alliances. The resulting atmosphere was not one of passion or repentance, according to the narrator of The Reader, but dissociation:

During the weeks of the trial, I felt nothing: my feelings were numbed. Sometimes I poked at them and imagined Hanna doing what she was accused of doing as clearly as I could, and also doing what the hair on her neck and her birthmark on her shoulder recalled to my mind. It was like a hand pinching an arm numbed by an injection.

The trial is complicated by further evidence of Hanna's deficiencies that calls on the narrator to decide between the value of objective truth and the more complicated truths we set up for ourselves to make life bearable. The Reader's exploration of this struggle is never obvious or clear-cut. It is, instead, remarkably human and frail.

Much of the second section revolves around the courtroom but The Reader is as much a courtroom drama as Homer's Odyssey is a travelogue. It infuses the events with an intelligence and a power which far surpass their superficial meaning, and makes readers look inside themselves to see how much evil and how much forgiveness might lurk there. Apart from the German issues it is also raising larger human issues about how people can hurt other people. The conclusion one character offers to the narrator is disturbing:

No, I'm not talking about orders and obedience. An executioner is not under orders. He's doing his work, he doesn't hate the people he executes, he's not taking revenge on them, he's not killing them because they're in his way or threatening or attacking him. They're a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.

Indifference—perhaps the greatest evil of them all. In The Reader, it is indifference that the narrator seeks to come to terms with more than anything else. He struggles all his life to emerge from this ennui that allowed the Holocaust to happen in the first place and then went on to smother his whole generation. It is only by facing up to the past, and redeeming what he can from it, that he is able finally to feel anything at all.

The Reader deserves its high praise. It has raised and tried to answer questions which have dogged human beings since long before the Holocaust reared its ugly head and which, I suspect, will continue to snap at our heels for many millennia to come.

Jeremiah P. Conway (essay date October 1999)

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SOURCE: Conway, Jeremiah P. “Compassion and Moral Condemnation: An Analysis of The Reader.Philosophy and Literature 23, no. 2 (October 1999): 284-301.

[In the following essay, Conway examines the moral dimensions of compassion in The Reader, drawing upon Martha Nussbaum's definition of compassion as a philosophical model.]

Human relationships are shaped decisively by how we respond to each other's suffering. Nearly all religious traditions emphasize that compassion, defined in a preliminary way as the emotional ability to be moved by the suffering of others, marks the spiritual development of both individuals and communities. But precisely because compassion is so widely praised, questions about its limits are often neglected. Are there instances when compassion must be checked or set aside? Is there something misguided about responding compassionately to people in certain situations? Are there, in short, appropriate limits to compassion?

In a recent, highly acclaimed German novel, The Reader,1 Bernard Schlink probes one possible limit: moral condemnation. The narrator (and main character of the story) struggles with the tension between compassion and condemnation as he witnesses the suffering of a proud woman desperately trying to hide the fact that she cannot read, an inability causing profound shame that dominates her entire life. His impulse to condemn her arises from moral outrage over the fact that this same woman willingly participated in the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust as a concentration camp guard. Complicating an already combustible emotional mix is the fact that, years earlier, when he was fifteen and she in her mid-thirties, the two were lovers.

Part of the appeal of The Reader stems from the fact that its struggle with the issue of compassion and moral condemnation is a salient one. We wrestle with this problem in our everyday lives, our judicial system, our public policy. Compassion for friends, associates, even strangers, is sometimes difficult, but compassion for those who commit moral crimes is extraordinarily rare, provocative, and questionable. The popularity of this novel and other works similar to it, such as Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking,2 is rooted in the unsettled and largely unexamined tension between the claim of compassion and the need for moral judgment.

I want to investigate such contested, emotional terrain from two starting points: by summarizing the analysis of compassion set forth by Martha Nussbaum in several of her recent books, and then by testing her understanding against the grain of The Reader.3 I focus on Nussbaum's analysis of compassion for several reasons: primarily because it is a prominent one in contemporary philosophy; additionally because Nussbaum herself finds it necessary to test her understanding of compassion against particular and provocative cases in literature and in the courts—precisely the kind of case The Reader provides; and, finally, because Nussbaum's analysis addresses the issue of the limits of compassion. My interest in comparing her analysis with The Reader stems from the suspicion that this novel challenges Nussbaum's understanding of compassion in some significant ways. I think the author comes to a different conclusion than Nussbaum and shows the possibility of reconciling moral condemnation and compassion on grounds other than she indicates.

Nussbaum traces her understanding of compassion back to Aristotle.4 Following him, she argues that compassion involves three key recognitions. First, it entails the belief that another person is suffering some significant pain or misfortune. We feel compassion for someone who undergoes a serious illness or bears the loss of a loved one but not for a motorist who is ticketed or a person who sneezes. Second, compassion entails the belief that the other person is suffering “some significant pain or misfortune in a way for which that person is not, or not fully, to blame” (CH [Cultivating Humanity], pp. 90-91). The claim here is that we do not feel compassion for those who are responsible for their own misery. Third, compassion requires a sense of one's own vulnerability to misfortune. “To respond with compassion, I must be willing to entertain the thought that this suffering person might be me” (CH, p. 91). Compassion arises from the recognition of a shared humanity—that we are frail, vulnerable creatures who depend in many ways for our well-being upon circumstances not fully under our control.

I have little trouble granting the first and third criteria; the second qualification, however, is more problematic. One can appreciate, of course, the force behind the claim that in order to feel compassion the suffering of the other must not be significantly self-inflicted. In point of fact, we tend not to feel compassion for those who suffer because of their own carelessness, avoidable ignorance, or reckless behavior. Lack of compassion for the moral criminal derives, in large part, from the same logic: if people suffer as a consequence of their own moral wrongdoing, then this suffering is self-incurred. Since they are responsible for the pain they are in, compassion is diminished. I am not arguing that this logic is justified; I am simply agreeing with Nussbaum that such an Aristotelian analysis of compassion accords closely with the belief system embedded in the experience of many, if not most, people. About such circumstances, we often hear comments like the following: “Well, they should have known better,” or “They should have thought of these things before they acted,” or “They made their bed, now they have to lie in it.”

An obvious strength of Nussbaum's understanding of compassion is that it accords so well with common experience, with how we actually feel. We do distinguish situations that seem to warrant compassion from others that do not. We do find it difficult to feel compassion for those judged guilty of morally heinous acts. But while I grant the correspondence of Nussbaum's (and Aristotle's) analysis of compassion to the way many people feel, the “correctness” of this correspondence may constitute more of a weakness than a strength. Her understanding of compassion reflects rather than challenges established patterns of feeling. On Nussbaum's account, compassion is selective; some instances of human suffering evoke and merit compassion; others do not. She excludes compassion for the moral criminal in proportion to the degree that the person intentionally and knowingly acted wrongly.

The problematic nature of this kind of exclusion resides at the heart of The Reader, as a more detailed account of the book may show. Fifteen-year-old Michael Berg has a short but passionate affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmidt, in post-war Berlin. It is the boy's first sexual experience—thrillingly sensual, yet strange. Its strangeness lies partly in the fact that in the midst of tender baths, meals, and love-making, the relationship centrally revolves around the act of reading. Michael becomes Hanna's reader; they spend countless hours moving though Homer's Odyssey, Tolstoy's War and Peace, and other works from Michael's high school curriculum. Then, as accidentally as the affair began, the relationship ends for no apparent reason. Without good-bye or explanation, Hanna leaves for an unknown destination.

Years later, Michael is studying law. For one of his seminars, which focuses on the legal issues surrounding the trials of Nazi war criminals, he attends the trial of five women accused of crimes committed while they were concentration camp guards. In addition to selecting women no longer fit for work to be dispatched from the work camp to Auschwitz (where they would almost certainly be gassed), the guards stand accused of leading camp inmates on a horrendous “death march” during the last stages of the war. The march resulted in the fiery death of nearly all the prisoners within a bombed church, whose doors the guards do not unlock. On the first day of the trial, Michael immediately recognizes one of the defendants as Hanna.

The courtroom is the first stage of a lifelong trial in which Michael wrestles with reconciling his love for this woman with the undeniable horror of her acts. His love forces him to question how she could have participated in these acts; his horror at these deeds forces him to question how he could have ever loved her and what this love says about him. Part of the power of the novel is that it operates in the midst of this conflict, refusing to simplify the tension. It does not dismiss the need for moral judgment about Hanna's acts, yet it also refuses to sacrifice compassion.

Michael's compassion for Hanna evidences itself in many ways. Throughout her trial, he is acutely aware of her emotional pain—her shame, anger, and exhaustion. After her sentence and incarceration, he again becomes her reader, recording and sending her tapes of books. Even after Hanna's death, he carries out her final wishes. Nonetheless, his compassion for her is conflicted, uneasy, and partial. He sends the tapes but never includes a letter or personal message. He thinks of her often but does not visit her in prison for eighteen years, except, finally, when he is asked by the warden to help Hanna prepare for her release. When he visits Hanna's grave at the very end of the novel, he does so, as the text so pointedly puts it, for “the first and only time” (TR [The Reader], p. 218). Michael's compassion, while genuine, is fragile.

This fragility, this tension, keeps both Michael and the reader rooted in an uneasy gray area between compassion and condemnation, a place where neither answers nor emotions are clear or simple. The novel questions the hard and fast distinction that one is either responsible or one is not. The more closely Michael pays attention to Hanna's life, the more complex his understanding of “responsibility” becomes. Hanna certainly knew that as a consequence of her actions people would be killed. She knew, for example, that the selection of inmates least capable of working would mean their certain death in Auschwitz. She certainly was not mentally incompetent. To this extent, she was clearly responsible for her acts. Yet Michael seeks to comprehend the broader context in which these acts took place. He pays attention to the fact that Hanna had been raised in a specific moral world that emphasized certain virtues, such as order, obedience, and duty. He also dwells upon the fact that the actions for which she is charged took place in the midst of the terrifying madness of war. He struggles to imagine the confusion, the weariness, the fear that Hanna must have faced during the death march and begins to appreciate the extent to which she was engulfed in a madness that had become pervasive and numbingly usual. He reflects on the uncanny power of this numbness: how, when death and terror surround human beings on a daily basis, they succumb to an indifference that protects them from feeling. Within this circle of apathy, all manner of cruelty is possible precisely because emotions shut down. These combined factors—the numbing madness of war, her fear of panic and disorder, a cultural emphasis on order and obedience to authority—leave Hanna particularly susceptible to carrying out what she is told, thoughtlessly and unquestioningly, even and especially when the world she presupposes is disintegrating.

Michael's compassion makes him inclined to understand Hanna's actions before he attempts to judge or condemn. This simple act of careful attention vastly complicates the issue of moral responsibility, which, he finds, cannot be neatly divided into two distinct categories: either one is or is not responsible. There are immense differences of degree, which are overlooked in this stark distinction of kind. Michael's compassionate understanding leads him to recognize how Hanna's actions are embedded within vast cultural and historical circumstances of which she had precious little control and scant awareness.

His compassion also makes him willing to penetrate more deeply into the messy particularities of Hanna's life. It leads him, for example, to unravel the secret which Hanna has been compulsively hiding from the court and from everyone throughout her life: she cannot read. His recognition of her illiteracy further complicates the issue of her moral responsibility. Of course, an inability to read does not rob a person of the capacity to make moral judgments. Nonetheless, it is not incidental to the conduct of Hanna's life. Indeed, the full and particular impact of illiteracy upon her life is immense. Michael recognizes that Hanna's illiteracy has been a terrible imprisonment, structuring the mindlessness of her work, giving shape both to her shame and her pathetic attempts to prove herself. At her trial, Hanna risks a longer sentence, even a chance of acquittal, in order to conceal what she regards as the indignity of her illiteracy. She prefers to lie about writing a report concerning the death march than to reveal her secret. This is but one instance in a lifelong pattern of shame, flight, and deception, the pain of which evokes Michael's compassion. As solidly as any wall, Hanna's shame isolates her, forcing her from job to job, city to city, relationship to relationship.

But her “prison” is more confining still. It isolates her not only from others but also from herself in many ways. Her inability to read diminishes her perspective on her own life; she has less chance to step back from her immediate situation, to question and reflect about it. This was especially the case within a political regime that so ruthlessly and efficiently managed popular opinion. Of course, reading per se means little or nothing as a prophylactic against complicity in atrocities such as the Holocaust. It is worth remembering that among the fourteen men summoned to attend what would later be known as the Wannsee Conference, the purpose of which was to work out the details of the Final Solution to the “Jewish problem,” nine held doctorate degrees, and all were educated in the finest universities of Central Europe. Reading alone is insufficient. But reading is a first and necessary step to what truly does matter: the critical examination of one's culture and oneself. Reading as a technical skill makes possible reading as the act of critically interpreting and assessing one's situation in the world. Illiteracy blocks Hanna's access to questions, critiques, and alternatives. Her world is circumscribed in a particular way.

Precisely because he cares about Hanna, Michael is constantly attentive to the chasms between her experience and his own. He realizes, for instance, that he knows nothing of Hanna's childhood, her parents, her birthplace. This awareness of the fractured nature of human interaction permeates the novel as a whole. The work emphasizes the extent to which we are strangers to each other and to ourselves. While the court examines Hanna from an impersonal distance that sometimes glosses over these gaps, Michael approaches Hanna with a personal attentiveness that often results, not in any presumption of knowledge, but in a recognition of the degree to which Hanna remains a mystery. Eventually, brooding upon peculiarities in her behavior, he is able to piece together the web of Hanna's shame and deceit about her inability to read. Michael's inexplicable love for Hanna teaches him to become a skillful interpreter, that is, a reader—one who recognizes how everything hangs upon interpretation and disclosure.

Reading in the sense of questioning and reinterpreting himself and his culture does not make Michael's life easier or more comfortable. In many ways, it complicates matters. At the same time, the novel shows that an absence of such reading robs life of its richness, texture, and nuance. Unless questioned and reinterpreted, things get simplified and overlooked or are passively accepted in terms of singular interpretations that are handed down. The human costs of such simplification are enormous. Toward the end of the novel, Hanna admits to Michael: “I always had the feeling that no one understood me anyway, that no one knew who I was and what made me do this or that. And you know, when no one understands you, then no one can call you to account” (TR, p. 198). When there is no sense that anyone understands, or even cares to, there is no sense of accountability. Because she thinks that no one has any idea of who she is, Hanna discounts anyone's ability to judge her fairly. Without real relationship, responsibility atrophies.

Unlike the judges of the court, Michael allows his questioning of Hanna's actions to become a form of self-questioning. Thinking about Hanna's detachment from others, he meditates on the extent to which his confinement of their relationship to an exhilarating but separate niche in his life was also a form of distancing. He is willing to admit that he shares Hanna's detachment from others: “In every part of my life, too, I stood outside myself and watched; I saw myself functioning at the university, with my parents and brother and sister and my friends, but inwardly I felt no involvement” (TR, p. 101).

Converse examples of judgment without self-examination occur throughout the story. Michael notices the glib hypocrisy of his generation's assumption that it would have acted differently during the Third Reich, while displaying arrogant disdain to those labeled Nazis. He sees Hanna's judges retreating to formalities as a way of avoiding personal questions. At one significant point in Hanna's trial, while she was being grilled by the presiding judge about the reasons for her actions, Hanna asks him: “‘I … I mean … so what would you have done?’ Hanna meant it as a serious question. She did not know what she should or could have done differently, and therefore wanted to hear from the judge, who seemed to know everything, what he would have done” (TR, p. 111). The passage describing the judge's response is telling:

Everything was quiet for a moment. It is not the custom at German trials for defendants to question the judge. But now the question had been asked, and everyone was waiting for the judge's answer. He had to answer; he could not ignore the question or brush it away with a reprimand or a dismissive counterquestion. It was clear to everyone, it was clear to him too, and I understood why he had adopted an expression of irritation as his defining feature. It was his mask. Behind it, he could take a little time to find an answer. But not too long; the longer he took, the greater the tension and expectation, and the better his answer had to be.

“There are matters one simply cannot get drawn into, that one must distance oneself from, if the price is not life and limb.”

(TR, pp. 111-12)

As the book points out, the judge's response is hapless and pathetic. Pronouncements about what “one” must or must not do, while refusing to speak to the particularities either of Hanna's case or his own life, underline the fact that Hanna's questions are not seriously endured by those sitting in judgment.

It would be unfair to equate the legal treatment of Hanna and the other camp guards with the caricatures of justice that occurred during the Third Reich. The differences between the two legal systems are vast. Nonetheless, the novel raises faint yet disturbingly real similarities between the failure to see beneath the stereotypical mask of the “camp guard,” “Nazi,” or “Jew.” The book thereby suggests that the seeds of the Holocaust are ever-present: in the triumph of abstraction over attention to particulars, in the ability of procedure to ride roughshod over the questionable, in the capacity to distance ourselves from others, in the longing for scapegoats, and in the seductive power of belonging to the “right” group. By detailing these tendencies, not merely in the past, but in democratic, postwar German society and in Michael himself, the novel is not “whitewashing” the Holocaust by making it seem less extraordinary; rather, it honors the true horror of the event by refusing to diminish the Holocaust as the machination of a few easily identifiable Nazis.

The impersonality of the judge's response, quoted earlier, is significant in another respect: Michael's analysis of Hanna's actions is based strongly on his feelings for her. In contrast, the judge's remarks about what “one must and must not do” according to enormously abstract principles indicate the extent to which Hanna's trial is being conducted within the parameters of an ideal of dispassionate reasoning. This is neither strange nor accidental. There is a long legal and philosophical tradition holding that reason operates better, more clearly and objectively, when distanced from the biases of the sentiments. It contends that emotions are inappropriate guides in public decision-making and should be excluded from deliberative processes as much as possible. Emotions, it argues, are not even-handed; they threaten impartiality: they often resist the force of argument and evidence.

While Michael worries about the possibility that his feelings may blind him, he is also aware that they are perceptive and instructive. They move him to the discovery of Hanna's illiteracy; they enable him to appreciate more clearly the force of Hanna's emotions in her behavior; they spur him to imagine what it is like to lead a life such as hers. His emotions are essential in enabling him to envision possible explanations for Hanna's behavior that the court never entertains. When the court learns that Hanna ordered the weakest female inmates to read to her in the evenings during their last month before being deported to Auschwitz, for example, the suspicion in the courtroom is that this is motivated by some sadistic sexual desire. But Michael's feelings lead him to consider a completely different possibility, that “she had chosen them to read to her because she wanted to make their last month bearable before their inevitable dispatch to Auschwitz” (TR, p. 133). This is, of course, pure speculation on Michael's part; he may be wrong. But the point is that Michael is capable of generating interpretive possibilities and insights that do not derive from any set of objective facts but from empathetic attentiveness to the emotional depths of another person.

As the novel makes clear, the particular trial of the five female guards is part of a larger indictment of one generation by the next, part of modern Germany's examination of its Nazi past, and a search to understand how such barbarism is possible in a well-educated, sophisticated society. “The generation that had been served by the guards and enforcers, or had done nothing to stop them, or had not banished them from its midst as it could have done after 1945, was in the dock, and we explored it, subjected it to trial by daylight, and condemned it to shame” (TR, p. 92). Michael temporarily joins the persecution of his parents' generation for their actions and silence during the Third Reich. But, as his sense of distance from the “criminals” is undermined by his relationship with Hanna, he soon finds the accusatory zeal of his peers more than a little self-righteous, and their assumption of belonging to a cleaner, morally superior group both untested and naive.

According to the novel, the seeds of the Holocaust are familiar, not only in the general sense of detachment from others, remaining in abstractions, and finding comfort in blaming others, which Michael sees all about him and in himself, but also in the literal sense in that he finds the seeds in his family. Michael's relationship with his father, for example, is critical. In contrast to memories of his mother indulging, even spoiling, him (interestingly with the same warm baths and washings that figure so importantly in his relationship with Hanna), Michael's father is enormously distant. It seems to Michael that the center of his father's life was always his work. In relation to his wife and children, his life was always elsewhere. Most conspicuous, however, is the father's lack of feeling:

My father was undemonstrative, and could neither share his feelings with us children nor deal with the feelings we had for him. For a long time I believed there must be a wealth of undiscovered treasure behind that uncommunicative manner, but later I wondered if there was anything behind it at all. Perhaps he had been full of emotions as a boy and a young man, and by giving them no outlet had allowed them over the years to wither and die.

(TR, p. 139)

There are parallels between Michael's relations with his father and the question of how a society so cultured, so well educated, with such a legacy in philosophy, literature, and the arts, could have been the cause of so much human misery. Michael's father was a professor of philosophy, remarkably well educated, a reader and writer of books. He is emblematic of Germany's intellectual sophistication. But in both the novel and in actual history this sophistication makes no difference in the occurrence of compassion. Why should this be?

The story offers some pregnant hints. At one point in the novel, Michael goes to his father, seeking advice on whether he should disclose Hanna's illiteracy to the court and, in so doing, prove that she could not be responsible for some aspects of the case that the other defendants were trying to pin on her. The details of what Michael recalls of this scene with his father are significant. He remembers how, like his father's university students, he and his siblings had to make appointments to see their father, waiting their turn to enter the room where most of their father's highly compartmentalized life took place:

I knew two of my father's studies. … In both places, the windows did not open the room to the world beyond, but framed and hung the world in it like a picture. My father's study was a capsule in which books, papers, thoughts, and pipe and cigar smoke had created their own force field, different from that of the outside world.

(TR, pp. 140-41)

More is intimated here than the room of one professor. The architecture of the study hints that, at least in this case (and we are left to wonder in how many others) the relationship between academic philosophy and the lived world is remarkably thin and tenuous. Philosophy is nearly divorced from the world here, as if the world serves philosophy merely as an occasion for it's theorizing. From the perspective of the philosopher's study, the world is abstract, distant to the point that it resembles a picture, something that one stands outside of as if a spectator. Missing is any active, committed involvement. The world becomes an object of study. The personal, especially the emotional depth of one's being, is excluded. With this exclusion, philosophy becomes a professional livelihood, not a way of living. In this environment, compassion, while it might be a topic for discussion or scholarly exegesis, does not seriously matter as a lived practice.

Asked for his advice whether Michael should, hypothetically, disclose Hanna's illiteracy to the court, his father tries to resolve the problem by citing the basic principle of respect for the autonomy of persons. While the discussion of the issue occurs in a conversation painfully steeped in concealment (Michael hiding his relationship with Hanna, and the father coping awkwardly with the unspoken distance between himself and his son), the “philosopher” attempts to handle the problem on a purely abstract, intellectual level, without ever delving into either the particularities of the situation or the emotional roots of Michael's interest in the case.

Michael's disagreement with his father is never verbalized but is evident in his eventual decision, contrary to his father's counsel to respect the wishes of the other, to visit the presiding judge. Though he takes this step, Michael remains strangely and completely silent about Hanna in the judge's chamber. Why would he disagree with his father and go to the judge, yet accord, finally, with his father's advice and say nothing about the illiteracy?

An answer to why Michael never reveals Hanna's secret resides, I think, in the confluence of two factors: first, Michael's recognition of a lifelong pattern in his behavior; second, the specific character of his conversation with that judge. The pattern that Michael recognizes concerns the relation between his thinking and his behavior:

Often enough in my life I have done things I had not decided to do. Something—whatever that may be—goes into action; “it” goes to the woman I don't want to see anymore, “it” makes the remark to the boss that costs me my head, “it” keeps on smoking although I have decided to quit, and then quits smoking just when I've accepted the fact that I'm a smoker and always will be.

(TR, p. 20)

Michael recognizes, of course, that thinking certainly influences behavior. But he is equally clear that his behavior does not simply enact what he has thought through and decided. His behavior has sources which lie buried in the depths of human emotion. When thought fails to engage and effect feeling, when feelings are unattended, behavior can belie the most definite and resolute rational decisions. Thus, while Michael eventually acts as his father advises, the basis for his action is different. Michael acts on the basis of what he feels, not just on the basis of what he thinks. What he feels for Hanna is the desire that she should suffer the least amount of pain, and he fears that disclosure of her illiteracy would mean betraying her again. At bottom, he wants to help and protect. The fact that he visits the judge shows that the abstract principle of respect for another's autonomy is an insufficient basis for whatever action he may take; this principle must be balanced carefully against his deep desire that Hanna not suffer unnecessarily. His father's purely intellectual approach to this problem and to life in general is too one-dimensional.

Michael goes to the judge's chamber in hope that information about Hanna's illiteracy might make a substantial difference to the sentence she will receive. What becomes evident in the pleasant chitchat with the judge, however, is the subtle, but nonetheless powerful, realization that this judge is a man whose concern with career and advancement has always been keen:

I answered all his questions. Then I listened while he talked about his studies and his exams. He had done everything the right way. He had taken the right classes and seminars at the right time and had passed his final exams with the right degree of success. He liked being a lawyer and a judge, and if he had to do it all again he would do it the same way.

(TR, p. 159)

The recurrence of the word “right” underscores Michael's perception of someone who is scrupulously attentive to doing what is expected and, correspondingly, someone who is very unlikely to let the disclosure of Hanna's illiteracy—at this late date and from this unlikely source—upset the widely anticipated, severe punishment of a war criminal. The judge is neither heartless nor unintelligent, but there are definite indications that he is a person whose capacity to resist the numbing pressures of the everyday—prevailing popular opinion, the desire to end an already drawn-out case—is not great. Michael's hope that he could spare Hanna pain by obtaining leniency is dashed by the realization that, given this judge and the particularities of this situation, information about Hanna's illiteracy would not penetrate the thickness of everyday routine and opinion. Disclosing this information would cause her harm and probably not help her case significantly.

Michael's dilemma regarding the tension between abstractions and emotions is reflected in both his father and Hanna. Michael's father segregates his thinking as a philosopher from his thinking and acting as a parent. He is capable of writing ethical treatises on Kant and Hegel but is clueless about relating to his son. If this disconnection is in any way suggestive of philosophy's failure to address the actual circumstances of life during the Third Reich, then it is completely without surprise that Germany's long and distinguished intellectual legacy seems to have made remarkably little difference to the event of the Holocaust. With few exceptions, German philosophers accommodated themselves quite well to conditions of fascism.

At the opposite extreme from Michael's father is Hanna. While the father seems to live through his intellect and have sacrificed his emotions, Hanna personifies someone whose feeling is largely divorced from thinking. Her actions are so tethered to the fulcrum of her shame that she turns persistently and blindly on this axis.

Both ways of being are not only stunted but dangerous. Hanna's unthinking feeling renders her substantially oblivious to her participation in gross cruelty and inhumanity. But the father's theoretical acumen, absent connection with his own and other's feelings, is equally powerless in coping with life's complexities. Interestingly, both Hanna and Michael's father end up in substantially the same place: Hanna's failure to respond to the human horror taking place in her midst is paralleled by the father's obliviousness to the pain of a son seeking a parent who is “elsewhere.” The certainty of Hanna's feeling is undaunted by questions; correspondingly, the theoretical “principles” of the father/philosopher are untroubled by emotional complexities. Michael, of course, finds himself caught in the middle of these two extremes.

In its portrait of these equally disastrous models of adulthood, the novel offers clues to the question of how the Holocaust was possible in such a well-educated society. It suggests that reading and the associated activities of thinking and education are insufficient safeguards against such atrocities as long as these intellectual activities are pursued primarily as “academic” matters, as a means of escape from the world or as technical tools for professional advancement. Reading can be a diversion. Thinking can be an exercise of calculated shrewdness or a professional pastime. If reading and thinking are to make any difference, then ways must be found to avoid framing “the world like a picture.” Reading must be a form of self-questioning, an act of cultural engagement and criticism. Thinking must risk the personal and the emotional.

The Reader makes this plea about reading indirectly but, nonetheless, powerfully in its very form of discourse. Its style is suggestive, invitational, leaving its audience to struggle with questions and problems rather than providing conclusions. It deftly turns Hanna's question to the judge around to the novel's readers: if you had been in this situation, what would you have done? It refuses to settle the problem but pushes readers to work out their own answers. Given this rhetorical framework, it is not immediately obvious how to address the guiding question of this paper: whether The Reader confirms or questions Nussbaum's understanding of compassion. An argument could be made that Michael's effort to understand Hanna actually illustrates Nussbaum's Aristotelian position: Michael could have compassion for Hanna, despite her complicity in wartime atrocities, because he saw the significant extent to which she was not responsible for her actions and, hence, for the suffering resulting from them.

But, on balance, I do not think this analysis would be a plausible interpretation of the novel. Michael accepts that Hanna is responsible for her actions. If he did not, his lifelong struggle to reconcile his love for her and his horror at her deeds would have never materialized. He has compassion for Hanna in spite of her responsibility for her actions. This is what makes the novel so compelling, and it is in this respect that the novel questions Nussbaum's understanding of compassion. The accident of an adolescent love affair leads Michael, admittedly with great difficulty and struggle, to glimpse the possibility of compassion for the moral criminal. Compassion, he comes to understand, is due even to those who suffer by their own fault.

This recognition comes from the fact that he is aware of the particularly poignant and painful condition of not being able to blame someone or something else for one's suffering. Such blame placing may be small comfort, but it is infinitely preferable to having only oneself to blame. The pain that Michael witnesses in Hanna is that of someone standing alone in the midst of the horror she has helped create. One does not have to dismiss the act committed to feel compassion for the pain of such a position; indeed, the degree of pain is proportionate to the heinousness of the act; one cannot be aware of one without the other. But beyond his awareness of her pain, Michael is able to identify with it on the basis of his experience. While he has never faced the horror of being responsible for the death of others, he is honest enough about his own moral weaknesses and callousness not to think himself distinguished by his lack of participation in the Holocaust. He knows that to a lesser but, nonetheless significant, degree he has been a moral criminal as well. He recounts how he cultivated a posture of arrogant superiority during his years at the university, how he formed relationships, sexual and otherwise, in which he was completely uninvolved, how he refused the blessing of a dying grandfather by coldly announcing his disbelief in anything religious. Remembering these incidents, Michael sees that Hanna's unthinking shame finds its parallel in his unquestioned decision, following the loss of their relationship, “never again to love anyone whom it would hurt to lose” (TR, p. 88). Whereas Hanna tries to shield herself from the disclosure of her illiteracy, Michael shields himself from the pain that loving entails. Both defenses become forms of blindness. Ironically, in running from their pain rather than facing it, Hanna and Michael both succeed in causing further misery.

Michael's compassion for Hanna exposes the limits, the powerful constraining conditions, within which we exercise our moral judgments and responsibility—even though we may share great similarities with those we wish to condemn. It reveals how enormously difficult, perhaps impossible, it is for one human being to know another. It leads Michael beyond the comfort of stereotypes and confronts him with what he cannot presume to judge. But while Nussbaum might see all of these qualifications diminishing the degree of Hanna's moral wrongdoing, thereby laying appropriate grounds for compassion for her, I think the novel works in another way. It never backs off the judgment that Hanna acted knowingly and wrongly. It never finds excuses for her deeds. Michael never contests, for example, the eighteen-year sentence that Hanna receives. The story acknowledges Hanna's moral guilt and finds room for compassion nonetheless. It intimates that moral condemnation is possible without distancing criminals from us so greatly that we fail to recognize ourselves in their midst. It maintains, as Nussbaum does not, that compassion is possible, indeed necessary, for the moral criminal.

The conclusion of The Reader helps underscore the peculiar power that compassion can exert in situations of moral condemnation. Briefly, let me set the context of the novel's ending. As I have mentioned, Michael continues to send Hanna tapes of books he is reading throughout her prison stay. To his surprise and delight, he eventually receives words of thanks from Hanna, laboriously penned out in her own hand. Hanna has learned to read and write in prison! As the completion of her prison sentence nears, Michael is contacted by the warden, who asks him to visit Hanna in order to help prepare her to return to society. Michael and Hanna meet. Yet on the night before her release, Hanna hangs herself. A note for Michael contains no explanation, only a request that a tin containing seven thousand marks be delivered to a Jewish woman who had survived the fire in the church during the death march.

This ending poses many questions that the novel never directly answers. Why does Hanna kill herself at the moment of her liberation? Is she afraid to rejoin the company of society? Does she fear freedom? Why, if Michael could have compassion for Hanna, could Hanna not have compassion for herself? In conclusion, let me suggest an interpretation for this ending and how it bears upon the topic of compassion and moral condemnation.

Hanna's imprisonment is really her liberation. Her life prior to prison had been dominated by illiteracy and frantic shame; in prison she learns to read. For the first time in her life, she could review and examine the conduct of her life instead of running and feigning toughness. For the first time, she could interpret herself by studying the words and thoughts of others, especially those outside her circle. Visiting Hanna's prison cell after her suicide, Michael notices the contents of Hanna's bookshelf: “Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Améry—the literature of the victims, next to the autobiography of Rudolf Hess, Hannah Arendt's report on Eichmann in Jerusalem, and scholarly literature on the camps” (TR, p. 205). Hanna becomes a student of her own experience by revisiting her deeds through the eyes of others, especially those of her victims. Through reading she is freed to confront what she had lived and what she had done. Reading allows her to become more fully human, which leads, of course, to her discovery of guilt and anguish.

I suspect that Hanna commits suicide at the very end of her sentence for several reasons. First, learning to read gives rise to a deepening of her thinking. This deepening, in turn, makes her more powerfully aware of her responsibilities as a person. Whereas her prison term was her responsibility to society and was imposed by it, Hanna discovers another responsibility in prison: the claims of the dead. Speaking in the prison yard during his first visit, Michael asks Hanna whether, prior to her trial, she had thought much about her actions in the war. She answered that neither before the trial nor at it had she felt called to account:

Not even the court could call me to account. But the dead can. They understand. They don't even have to have been there, but if they were, they understand even better. Here in prison they were with me a lot. They came every night, whether I wanted them or not. Before the trial I could still chase them away when they wanted to come.

(TR, pp. 198-99)

Learning to read allows her to hear the voices of those she had killed and those to whom she had been indifferent; it reveals the enormity of the suffering she helped inflict. Reading is the path by which the dead could finally make their claim upon her. Hanna serves her prison sentence to fulfill her responsibility to society; she takes her life as a way of fulfilling an obligation to the dead.

If this interpretation of the novel's conclusion is correct, then it adds an interesting twist to the consideration of compassion for the moral criminal. Compassion is often considered a form of softness, an emotional response which seems too easy or complacent in relation to serious moral wrongdoing. In terms of this assumption, The Reader ought to give us pause. Michael's compassion for Hanna is instrumental in helping her learn to read. Ironically, this gift leads Hanna to be more critical and severe with herself than even the legal system deemed necessary. Michael's compassion for Hanna gives her the chance to reach self-judgment. Compassion brings her to realize the enormity of the suffering she helped cause. Compassion enables her to become the reader of her own acts.


  1. Bernard Schlink, The Reader, trans. Carol Brown Janeway (New York: Vintage International, 1998), p. 157; hereafter abbreviated TR.

  2. Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of The Death Penalty in the United States (New York: Random House, 1993).

  3. See Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); hereafter abbreviated CH, and Poetic Justice (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).

  4. Two of Nussbaum's most substantial discussions of Aristotle's understanding of eleos (translated as both compassion and pity) are “Tragedy and Self-Sufficiency: Plato and Aristotle on Fear and Pity,” in Essays on Aristotle's Poetics, ed. Amelia O. Rorty (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 261-90, and “Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion,” Social Philosophy and Policy 13 (1996): 27-58.

I would like to thank Wanda Whitten, David and Carol Compton, and Trudy Conway for their constructive criticism of this paper as it developed.

Ian Sansom (essay date fall 1999-winter 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5136

SOURCE: Sansom, Ian. “Doubts about The Reader.Salmagundi, nos. 124-125 (fall 1999-winter 2000): 3-16.

[In the following essay, Sansom objects to the overall critical acceptance of The Reader and offers a negative evaluation of the novel, which he finds morally superficial, trite, and mendacious.]

Death by the book is uncommon, but it is not unknown. Printing, for example, was until relatively recently a dangerous trade, and the effects of lead poisoning through the practice known as ‘chewing type’ was said in some cases to have been fatal. Dr Edward Smith, in his report on the Sanitary Conditions of Printers in London for the House of Commons in 1863, noted that compositors seemed to be suffering from “poisoned hands and dropping of the wrists,” and that publisher's readers could most often be found tucked away in dark closets, “not much larger than a full-sized coffin.” The book trade, one might say, brings one close to death (anyone who has had dealings with publishers will confirm this).

Merely reading books can also be hazardous. Momme Brodersen, in his biography of Walter Benjamin, tells how “twice at the turn of 1939/40 he [Benjamin] met up with his ex-wife Dora, but he did not yield to her entreaties to leave Paris and bring himself into safety. Instead, he had his reader's card at the Bibliothèque Nationale renewed so that he could proceed with his work.” Benjamin, already once interred and released, soon found himself fleeing Paris under the threat of Hitler's armies. He crossed the Pyrenees on foot, only to find his transit visa for Spain refused and his return to France and the camps inevitable. In despair, on the 27th September 1940, he committed suicide. Benjamin's decision to renew his library card—he was busy working on the Arcades Project—might be called a fatal mistake.

There are of course also those—not so much bibliomaniacs as simply maniacs—who have claimed to have read certain books and as a consequence gone on to kill, although the relationship between cause and effect is not often clear, or is misleading: The Catcher in the Rye can probably be proved to have directly caused more deaths than the Bible and Mein Kampf.

It is in fact much more common that a book simply makes us feel sick. The great diarist Henry Crabb Robinson, writing in a letter to his friend Dorothy Wordsworth in February 1826 about the poet William Blake, reported that “I had the pleasure of reading to B in my best style (& you know I am vain on that point & think I read W's poems peculiarly well) the Ode on Immortality. I never witnessed greater delight in any listener & in general B. loves the poems. What appears to have disturbed his mind, on the other hand, is the preface to the Excursion. He told me six months ago that it caused him a bowel complaint which nearly killed him.” Blake, of course, was prone to exaggeration, but most readers will know what it means to be upset by another person's prose. “One Saturday afternoon,” reports the critic Alberto Manguel, “some time ago, a friend dropped by to see me and said I looked horribly sick. I told her I felt horribly sick. As far as I could remember, I had only felt like this once before, after seeing a dog hit by a car. My friend asked me what had happened. I told her I had just finished reading Bret Easton Ellis's book, American Psycho.” Bernard Schlink's The Reader is not sickening, like seeing a dog hit by a car, or reading American Psycho, but it is extremely unsettling; like seeing a rabbit caught in a headlight's glare.

For those who don't know, and to recap: The Reader (Der Vorleser) is a novel written in German by a German lawyer and judge who writes crime novels. The English edition is translated by Carol Brown Janeway, a New York editor, who has also translated Im Keller (In the Cellar), Jan Phillipp Reemstma's account of being kidnapped and held hostage, and Bruchstücke (Fragments) by Binjamin Wilkomirski, a book purporting to have been written by a child survivor of the Nazi death camps (and which has been exposed recently as a fraud—see Elena Lappin's article, “The Man with Two Heads” in Granta 66).

Like the Wilkomirski book, and Jan Phillipp Reemstma's, but more so than either, Schlink's German in translation has become a worldwide commercial and critical success. Probably not since Günter Grass's The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel), first published in 1959 and translated by Ralph Manheim and published in English in 1961, has a book by a German-language writer attracted such widespread praise, and such a wide range of admirers: readers of The Reader, according to on-line bookstore, who record information about the on-line buying habits of all its customers, also bought music by the Corrs, an internationally popular Irish band who produce sentimental soft-rock ballads with a Celtic tinge, or twinge. (Amazon's cross-marketing technique often throws up strange and revealing combinations: buyers of Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, for example, appear also to have bought CDs by knuckle-headed Brit-pop band Oasis, and fans of techno-shockers the Prodigy seem also to be fans of Simon Schama's stylish The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age).

The Reader is an Oprah Book Club Selection—a distinction it shares with Paradise, by Toni Morrison and The Best Way to Play, by Bill Cosby—and as if this were not enough, it has been greeted with acclaim by heavyweight critics, including the probably non-Corrs listening and Oprah-watching George Steiner, who described the book as “masterful.” The English thriller writer Ruth Rendell has proclaimed The Reader “a sensitive, daring, deeply moving book about the tragic results of fear and the redemptive power of understanding,” exactly the kind of up-beat blurb publishers like to be able to wrap around covers and paste on websites, along with other buyer-friendly claims of the kind made by Suzanne Ruta, the reviewer in the New York Times, who announced that the book “leaps national boundaries,” “speaks straight to the heart” and is “ultimately hopeful.” The icing on the cake, at least on the cover of the British paperback edition, is the extraordinary judgement by the theatre director Sir Peter Hall that the book both “objectifies the Holocaust and legitimately makes all mankind responsible,” which we are presumably supposed to believe is a very good thing. For whatever reasons, Germans liked it too: Der Spiegel described Der Vorleser as “Ein literarisches Ereignis,” while the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung announced, “Ein genuiner Schrifsteller, der hier ans Licht kommt.” Can all these people be wrong? The answer is not, I think, unambiguous.

The Reader comes in three parts, or chunks: despite all the claims for its fine articulations and moral finessing, it seems deliberately roughhewn, seems almost in fact an iconic representation of a novel (but then it's perhaps no surprise to find a book with such an important and inveigling title setting itself up as a Book; the author of a Book called The Reader is clearly, self-consciously, a Writer).

In the first chapter of the first part we are introduced to the narrator, Michael Berg, Bildungs-hero. He is looking back on his life. He begins, “When I was fifteen, I got hepatitis. It started in the autumn and lasted until spring.” We are hereby led to expect some sort of remembrance of things past, perhaps suffused with sentiment and sepia-tinted. Which is indeed what we get; this first part of the book is all about the confusions of adolescence and sexual awakening. This rather sweaty and seamy turmoil sets the tone for what is to follow.

The inciting incident, significantly, is Michael's being sick on the street (the opposite of eating a madeleine): “My mouth was suddenly full, I tried to swallow everything down again, and clenched my teeth with my hand in front of my mouth, but it all burst out of my mouth anyway straight through my fingers.” This anguished act of public spewing is characteristic of Schlink's narrative style as much as it is of Michael's sickness: The Reader is a constant disgorging of emotions, a continual choking up and swallowing down.

A woman takes Michael into her flat to clean him up. We learn that her name is Hanna Schmitz, and that she is thirty-six years old. What we don't know at this stage is that she was also a camp guard during the Holocaust, although from the outset Schlink does his best to create around Hanna an atmosphere of menace and violence: “When rescue came, it was almost an assault. The woman seized my arm and pulled me through the dark entrance into the courtyard. Up above there were lines strung from window to window, loaded with laundry. Wood was stacked in the courtyard; in an open workshop a saw screamed and shavings flew.” The book is thus often both portentous and pre-emptive.

It is also determinedly universalising. We are told that Michael and his family live “on the second floor of a massive turn-of-the-century building” and that Hanna lives in another, similar old building. Hanna's building, dark and foreboding, is nothing less than an archetype, filled with “the smell of cleaning fluid, sometimes mixed with the smell of cabbage or beans or fried food or boiling laundry.” Michael dreams about his building, transposing it to far-off places—“I'm not picturing Bahnhofstrasse in my home town, but another city, or another country”—and you don't have to be Gaston Bachelard to be able to read the building as an image both of Hanna's moral state (her kitchen has no window) and a universalising metaphor (the house = the world). As Michael enters into this dwelling he passes from innocence into experience.

Michael returns to the building to thank Hanna for helping him when he was sick, and by his second visit she has seduced him, although exactly who “she” is never really clear, because throughout the soft-porn scenes of seduction (“I explored her body with my hands and mouth, our mouths met, and then she was on top of me, looking into my eyes until I came”) Hanna remains no more than a half-remembered Identikit Aryan: “If I see her in my mind's eye as she was then, she doesn't have a face at all, and I have to reconstruct it … High forehead, high cheekbones, pale blue eyes, full lips that formed a perfect curve without any indentation, square chin.” She also has “ash-blonde hair,” and works as a tram-conductor. Just in case readers miss the significance of this, Schlink explains that “what she liked about the job was the uniform and the constant motion, the changing scenery and the wheels rolling under her feet.” Of her body, recalls Michael, it was “left it to itself and its own quiet rhythms, unbothered by any input from her mind, oblivious to the outside world.” Also, she showers obsessively. Hanna, indeed, is Germany, and Michael's relationship with her is supposed to be symbolic, rather than just an out-of-focus schoolboy fantasy. Or as Michael ponders it, later in the book, with characteristic and impressive self-regard: “How could it be a comfort that the pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate, and that it was only more difficult for me to evade, more difficult for me to manage than for others?”

Michael's developing relationship with Hanna excites the first of the many moral spasms that animate and enliven The Reader, and which constitute much of its appeal. In these intermittent passages of energetic self-interrogation Michael wades into morally murky waters, wrestling with himself, emerging muddy but morally cleansed. Reflecting on the early stage in their relationship, and seeking to explain his sense of guilt, Michael states that “Often enough in my life I have done things I had not decided to do” and draws the conclusion from this that “behaviour does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided.” This logic softens up the reader for scenes later in the book, when Michael seeks to understand Hanna's morally weak actions as a camp guard: one of The Reader's many tendentious claims seems to be that we all act, or fail to act, in certain ways not through choice but simply because we are weak, ill-educated, or have been swayed and affected by external circumstances, such as the provocative presence of beautiful, blond-haired women, or the raving logic of genocide.

Michael's soul-searching and self-exculpating continue as Hanna increasingly comes to dominate him sexually and he begins to have to lie to his parents and friends in order to conceal their relationship. There are then two extraordinary and unexpected developments in what is already an extraordinary and unexpected relationship: Michael begins reading out loud to Hanna, whom we discover enjoys being read to; and there is a sudden and unexplained explosion of violence, when Hanna hits Michael with a leather belt. “She was holding the narrow leather belt that she wore around her dress; she took a step backwards and hit me across the face with it. My lip split and I tasted blood.” There is clearly more to Hanna than meets the eye (Schlink is inclined to underline, and he uses this unpleasant scene to emphasise the relationship between sex and violence—“She let her arm fall, dropped the belt, and burst into tears … Her mouth was making croaking, throaty sounds like the toneless cry when we made love”). Not surprisingly, Michael soon begins to spend more time with friends his own age, and emotionally withdraws from Hanna, although in his fevered teenage imagination he sees this as a betrayal of her. Then, one day, after Hanna spots him sporting with his young friends at a swimming pool she leaves town. End of Part One.

The second part of the book fulfils the damp and creepy hints and omens of the first. Years have passed. Michael is now a law student, and the next time he sees Hanna again, it's in a courtroom: she's being tried for war crimes. It emerges that during the Holocaust Hanna chose to join the SS rather than work at the Siemens factory in Berlin, and subsequently served as a guard in Auschwitz and then at a small camp near Cracow. Along with four other defendants she is questioned about her treatment of the women prisoners in her charge and in particular about her actions when a number of these prisoners—“several hundred,” notes Schlink, vaguely; he does not refer to them as Jews—were locked into a church which caught fire. The doors to the church were kept locked: the women inside burned to death; only a mother and her daughter survived (Schlink does not provide his minor characters with names).

If the first part of the book was slightly queasy-making, the second part is hugely disturbing. During the course of the trial Hanna is consistently portrayed as just: “Hanna,” Michael claims at one point, “wanted to do the right thing. When she thought she was being done an injustice, she contradicted it, and when something was rightly claimed or alleged, she acknowledged it.” Her lack of an appropriate attitude—contrition, shame, humility—towards her crimes is presented as a kind of primitive dignity. She is also portrayed as herself a helpless victim, being singled out and accused by a fellow defendant, who is described as “plump and vicious,” unlike Hanna, presumably, on both counts. The plump one accuses Hanna of responsibility for writing the official SS report on the church-burning, and Hanna then decides to sacrifice herself for the sake of the other defendants, through stupidity or nobility it is impossible to tell, by agreeing that she did indeed write the report, thus admitting seniority and responsibility for the crime. In Carol Brown Janeway's English translation, Schlink seems to go so far as to compare Hanna's trial to Jesus' appearance before Pilate: “But the lawyer did not ask Hanna, and she did not speak of her own accord.” The original German reads, “Aber der Anwalt fragte Hanna nicht, und sie sprach nicht von sich aus.” The New Testament, in any language, is not so very far away: “And Pilate asked him again, saying, Answerest thou nothing? Behold how many things they witness against thee. But Jesus yet answered nothing; so that Pilate marvelled” (Mark, 15:4-5).

So, what is truth? Confusion begins to pile upon confusion as Michael equates his own feelings of shame about his adolescent desire for Hanna with her own guilt: “I had betrayed her. So I was still guilty. And if I was not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal.” Thus is Michael's hormonally-challenged betraying of Hanna's affection confused with her own fully conscious role in the slaughter of “several hundred” Jews, left to burn to death in a church.

It is at this point in the novel—with Hanna's having been firmly established as a pathetic, misguided, weak, but nonetheless huge and looming symbol of German innocence and guilt—that Michael realises that Hanna cannot read and write, and so cannot have been responsible for the official SS report. It has also emerged in court that she had been in the habit of taking the weakest of the young prisoners in her charge, who were being sent back to Auschwitz to be murdered, to read to her at night: thus, she is not only technically “innocent” of one crime, she is actually shown to have been benevolent. After some more soul-searching—he cannot decide whether or not to inform the trial judge of his discovery—Michael accepts Hanna's illiteracy as the total and simple explanation for her crimes, but decides not to reveal her secret. “She was not pursuing her own interests, but fighting for her own truth, her own justice,” he reasons, before descending into psycho-babble: “What did she gain from this false self-image which ensnared her and crippled her and paralysed her?” Hanna is sentenced to life imprisonment. The other defendants receive lesser sentences. End of Part Two.

Part Three is taken up with Michael's reminiscences of that period of time after her Hanna's incarceration. He continues to suffer agonies of conscience on behalf of himself, on Hanna's behalf, and indeed on behalf of a whole generation of Germans: “Whatever validity the concept of collective guilt may or may not have, morally and legally—for my generation of students it was a lived reality. […] Pointing at the guilty parties did not free us from shame, but at least it overcame the sufferings we went through on account of it.” He also continues to feel that he is himself implicated in Hanna's crimes, because he'd had sex with her when he was a teenager: “I had no one to point at […] I had to point to Hanna. But the finger I pointed at her turned back to me. I had loved her.” In order to assuage his guilty conscience he again begins reading to Hanna, taping books for her and sending them to her in prison. He begins with the Odyssey, and moves on to Chekhov and Schnitzler. Through this rather unorthodox—indeed, unbelievable—method Hanna eventually begins to learn to read and write.

Time is foreshortened. After eighteen years Hanna is due for release. The prison governor asks Michael to assist Hanna on her release by finding her some accommodation and work. Michael agrees, and he goes to the prison to meet Hanna again, face-to-face, for the first time since he was fifteen. All preparations have been made for her release on the following day. They talk, and Schlink gives Hanna about a dozen sentences to explain her crimes—by far her longest passage of self-revelation. She says, in part: “I always had the feeling that no one understood me anyway, that no one knew who I was and what made me do this or that. And you know, when no one understands you, then no one can call you to account. Not even the court could call me to account. But the dead can. They understand.” Even Michael is dissatisfied with this pitiful and self-serving explanation.

And at dawn the next morning Hanna hangs herself. When Michael arrives at the prison the governor shows him Hanna's cell: she has a collection of books by Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, and Jean Améry. In becoming a reader, it seems, Hanna has achieved enlightenment. Reading has become a qualification to do good, which in Hanna's case means realising the enormity of her crimes and deciding to kill herself: “As soon as Frau Schmitz learned to read,” claims the prison governor, “she began to read about the concentration camps.” Michael is taken to see Hanna's body in the prison hospital, and recognises the young woman he loved in the face of the old criminal: “As I looked and looked, the living face became visible in the dead, the young in the old.” Thus, paradoxically, through Hanna's death, The Reader reasserts humanity's capacity for goodness, and hints at the possibility of renewal: as in tragedy, through death, a right order is restored to the world. And, also, as if confirming the sort of equivalence that Michael had sought and failed convincingly to achieve, the book's title comes retrospectively to refer not only to Michael but also to Hanna; she has become The Reader. At the very least, her death offers the possibility of closure: without it, Schlink's book would have been longer, and much darker. Michael would have had to wrestle with the reality of living with a woman convicted for war crimes rather than the fantasy allowed by her removal in prison, and her convenient suicide.

In a kind of coda to the book Michael recalls a trip to America to seek out the nameless “daughter who survived the fire with her mother,” in order to pass on some money which Hanna has bequeathed to her. The money is sent to the improbable Jewish League Against Illiteracy, on the daughter's insistence that this in no way represents an atonement (although no atonement is in fact necessary, since Schlink has already been more than generous towards Hanna). “What a sad story, I thought for so long,” concludes Michael. “Not that I now think it was happy. But I think it is true, and thus the question of whether it is sad or happy has no meaning whatever.” The End.

There are, I hope I have hinted, a number of things wrong with all this. The utterly mundane nature of the prose on offer—Schlink is a lawyer and writes like a lawyer—is probably irrelevant, since the theme is all. And it is the theme that's the real problem: is what we read in The Reader really ‘true’, as Michael claims? Does the book express and contain truths, as it so obviously intends?

Well, the suggestion of a universal standard and experience of victimisation certainly seems unhelpful, to say the least: Hanna is not confused with her victims, but she is portrayed as a victim and compared to her victims, and ultimately the book is less interested in her victims than in her. Also, though we may well be inclined to agree with Elie Wiesel that “the essence of man is to be a question,” Michael's orgies of questioning do become tiresome, and many of his questions are simply trite, or simply self-absorbed, or obvious, irrelevant, or uninteresting (“Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truths? Why does the memory of years of happy marriage turn to gall when our partner is revealed to have had a lover all those years?”) At best, he asks the right questions, but offers the wrong answers. Discussing the willingness of his generation of Germans to discuss and debate the Holocaust, for example, Michael reflects: “When I think about it now, I think our eagerness to assimilate the horrors and our desire to make everyone else aware of them was in fact repulsive.” This may be so, but the assimilation of horrors can only be repulsive, otherwise they would not be horrors, and to make others aware of repulsive horrors is surely to be preferred to the constructing of convenient untruths.

In another crucial passage Michael claims, “I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. […] I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.” Impossible to do both? Does not condemnation in fact arise from understanding? I understand that you are ill-educated/morally weak/impressionable, and I know that you have committed a crime, and I condemn you. Is this not the basis of morality?

There is also the problem of Michael's posing of analogies which are wild or inaccurate, or just plain weird. He attempts to imagine, for example, Hanna's crimes, and, simultaneously, recalls his sexual relationship with her:

It was like a hand pinching an arm numbed by an injection. The arm doesn't register that it is being pinched by the hand, the hand registers that it is pinching the arm, and at first the mind cannot tell the two of them apart. But a moment later it distinguishes them quite clearly. Perhaps the hand has pinched so hard that the flesh stays white for a while. Then the blood flows back and the spot regains its colour. But that does not bring back the sensation.

This is confusing, but no matter. The book's really big and important confusion is the central conceit of Hanna's illiteracy, which is presumably supposed to represent but which in fact exaggerates and caricatures her lack of moral intelligence. Because it is something that can be taught and easily remedied, it both diminishes the seriousness of Hanna's failings and holds out the promise of improvement and perfectibility. “Illiteracy is dependence,” claims Michael (“Analphabetismus ist Unmündigkeit”). “By finding the courage to learn to read and write,” reads the Janeway translation, “Hanna had advanced from dependence to independence, a step towards liberation.” Janeway's choice of the word “liberation” here, in the context of a book about the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps, is ill-advised; the German phrase, “einen aufklärerischen Schritt” might be translated literally as “a step towards combating ignorance.” But then, as Elena Lappin notes of Janeway's translation of Binjamin Wilkomirski's Bruchstücke, she “has a poetic touch with English.”

A book, though, should not be blamed for its translator (and Janeway, it should be said, on the whole, and as far as I can tell, is a fine and fluent translator). Nor should it be blamed for its readers. Fans of The Reader—of whom there are many—clearly enjoy the spectacle of Michael's continual hand-wringing. This may simply be a matter of taste, but it may also be that they have confused all the moral-scrupling with morality. Indeed, the beauty and appeal of The Reader is that it offers the promise of being a serious book about a serious subject without actually being serious. It offers much—rich symbolism, plenty of Holocaust-kitsch (Hanna turns up at her trial wearing an SS-style black suit and tie and white blouse), under-age, illicit and steamy sex, a court, a trial—and yet it demands almost nothing from the reader: Michael remains troubled but is exonerated through persistent worrying; Hanna is killed off, and all the other characters are merely incidental. The book doesn't exactly offer exculpation, but it comes pretty close, and it only upsets in order ultimately to reassure.

The critics seem also to have been mesmerised and soothed by Michael's hypnotic quibbling and querying. The poet and essayist D. J. Enright, for example, usually so robust and so right, wrote a review in the New York Review of Books, claiming that “Primo Levi and the other authors found in Hanna's cell were, if one dare express it so, the happy ones, recording at first hand, with the freshness and force of the moment, the unbelievable yet unarguable, untrammelled by the welter of complicity and recrimination, mitigation and atonement, agonising and numbness, which Schlink has described so searchingly.” This is typical of the many published responses to The Reader, and is, typically, totally wrong-headed; even the short passage I've quoted contains almost as many errors as it does words. Take Enright's decision to describe Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel and the others as the “happy ones,” for example. The happy ones? Why dare express it so? How could they, under any circumstances be considered the “happy ones” (an unfortunate phrase which Enright seems to have invented only in order to avoid the truly appalling but idiomatically correct, “lucky ones”). And to talk of the “freshness” of the “moment” of the Holocaust? The “moment”? From the establishing of Dachau concentration camp in 1933, and the boycotting of Jewish businesses and professions? And its “freshness”? What, like a sudden breath of fresh air? A romantic freshening of the wind? Some kind of Aeolian inspiration? And experiencing the Holocaust “at first hand,” almost as if it were a boast? Levi should have been grateful? And poor Schlink has the unhappier, the harder job? A German judge who has chosen to write about the Holocaust, from a distance, for the purposes of entertainment and making money?

This clearly cannot be the case. And yet that The Reader has excited such extraordinary and uniform responses among highly educated and sometimes even brilliant readers, must witness to some sort of potency and quality in the writing. It is indeed a book of a kind, of a mode, that has already and will increasingly appear, a book that crosses boundaries, both national and aesthetic, and which subtly blurs distinctions between perpetrators and their victims, between participants and observers, offering to world-wide generations of the future, to borrow Enright's troubling phrase, a great bubbling “welter of complicity and recrimination, mitigation and atonement, agonising and numbness.” It is, in its way, impressive, and to be expected: as time goes by, and there are no more survivors, we will of course have to invent new, exciting, and different ways of telling the story of the Holocaust, and The Reader is certainly one way. Great claims have been made for it, but at the moment only one thing is sure; such a book was inevitable. It may yet prove unwise.

Jeffrey Adams (review date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Adams, Jeffrey. Review of Liebesfluchten, by Bernhard Schlink. World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 147-48.

[In the following review, Adams lauds Schlink's examination of love and passion in Liebesfluchten.]

After establishing himself as a prize-winning author of popular crime novels, Bernhard Schlink published the best-selling novel Der Vorleser, which in the eyes of many elevated him to a higher level of literary achievement. His latest book, [Liebesfluchten,] a collection of stories about love, indicates that Schlink will continue to set higher literary goals for himself, but without giving up the elements that made his previous writings commercially viable: the twisting plots and surprise endings of the crime genre and the undemanding, straightforward style that makes him such an easy read.

As the book's title announces, these stories concern the “flights of love.” Whether drawn by love's magnetic pull or fleeing its stifling clutches, the characters in these very credible and very conventional narratives are caught in the tangles of Eros, but also ensnared by the complexities of their social and historical situations. Organized around the amatory predicaments of everyday people, these stories treat themes that could easily devolve into kitsch. But, as he had done in Der Vorleser, Schlink avoids this tendency by placing his characters not only in interpersonal relationships, but also in relation to social reality and the political past.

The first story, “Das Mädchen mit der Eidechse,” features a young law student who becomes an amateur detective to track down the identity and origin of a painting he inherits from his father, an alcoholic judge. As a boy, the law student had adored the painting (portraying a girl and a lizard), and after his father's death, it is the only vestige of his troubled family life that he cares to preserve. But the painting has a dark power that begins to influence the son's life, especially his relationships with women, who sense that at some important level they cannot compete with the girl in the painting. The desire to know more about the painting and its significance for his father results in unexpected revelations. It turns out that the father had acquired the artwork by dubious means during the Nazi period. In pursuing and uncovering this knowledge, however, the son arrives at a better understanding and acceptance of his parents, despite their emotional shortcomings, and finally at a clearer understanding of himself.

The second story, “Der Seitensprung,” is the paradoxical tale of a betrayal committed to save a marriage. Sven and Paula are a happily married East German couple, whom the narrator meets and befriends in Berlin during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The narrator is a Sozialrichter in West Germany, which makes him interesting to the East German Stasi agents who are pressuring Sven to spy for them in order to compensate for the transgressions of his politically subversive wife. After the Wende, Sven and Paula are able to improve their social and economic standing, but when it comes out that Sven has subsidized their success by providing intelligence reports on his wife and friends to the Stasi, Paula vents her anger in a one-night stand with the surprised but willing narrator. Although this story offers some interesting views of the Wendezeit, providing a window onto the stressful lives of GDR folks involved in the process of political change, its literary qualities are not as strong as those of the preceding tale.

“Der Andere” concerns an elderly widower who must come to grips with his discovery of the secret extramarital activities of his recently deceased wife, and as the story of coming to terms with a repressed past that threatens to spoil the pleasure of living in the present, this tale may have allegorical resonance for contemporary Germans, whose capacity for mourning is still a relevant social issue. “Zuckererbsen” returns to some of the basic and more artful elements of Schlink's crime fiction in a story of a man who has it all—a solid, lucrative profession as architect and bridge builder, but also enough artistic talent to allow him to realize his fantasy of becoming a painter—only to realize ultimately that he is a natural con man with little conscience and almost no sense of commitment. This is ultimately a story of comeuppance, and Thomas gets his, but in an unexpected and delightfully humorous way.

“Die Beschneidung” continues the author's exercise in political allegory, as well as his thematic focus on coming to terms with the Nazi past and its burden of guilt and shame. The final two stories share what one might loosely call an existential aspect: both concern themselves with extreme situations in which a cruel truth imposes its emotional force on an unwilling human mind. Their central achievement is that they manage to recruit the reader as an empathic witness to their existential scenarios, keeping us poised, imaginatively, on the sharp edge between life and death that lacerates the fictional characters and confronts us with the painful consequences of our all-too-human actions or inactions in the real world, beyond the safe pages of well-formed prose.

If it is Schlink's intention to make the writerly leap from his previous crime fiction, which is so obviously a fictional construct (and thus at best entertainment) to a realistic fiction that strives to become enduring art, it would appear that, for now, he has achieved his goal. Time and further writings will show whether he can sustain this achievement.

Richard Zimler (review date 7 October 2001)

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SOURCE: Zimler, Richard. “Sympathy for the Devil.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 October 2001): 8.

[In the following review, Zimler offers a favorable assessment of Flights of Love, but deems several of the volume's stories unsuccessful.]

Has a woman who committed an atrocity in the service of the Third Reich any right to expect understanding from an old lover who hears of the crime's circumstances years later? And if we as readers come to see how a tragic flaw in her character led her to choose evil, can we permit ourselves to feel what was previously unthinkable: sympathy?

These and other questions raised by Bernhard Schlink's international best-seller The Reader served to undermine the emotional certainties of his narrator and the public alike. Some critics even called the novel “morally confused” because it dared to paint in shades of gray a tiny fictional corner of a historical landscape generally thought of in starkest black and white: the Holocaust.

In Schlink's mature and disturbing new collection of short fiction, Flights of Love, he again brings his ambiguous storytelling gifts to the themes of psychic numbing, collective guilt and betrayal that have haunted his postwar generation in Germany. Facing turning points in their lives, their naiveté smothered by the weight of experience and history, his characters know that whatever path they choose—whether to abandon a failing marriage or investigate Dad's hidden Nazi past—is certain to cause irreparable damage. Cornered by this knowledge and by their own conflicting emotions, they grope toward a resolution that will allow them to retain a measure of dignity and independence.

In the first and best of these stories, “Girl with Lizard,” a young man discovers that a surrealist painting kept hidden in his childhood home is a lost work by a famous French artist who vanished during World War II. His mother tells him that his late father, a military judge under the Nazi regime, received it as a gift from Jews whom he'd helped. Maybe so. But as the young man researches its origins, he comes to learn of other more sinister ways in which his father may have come to be its owner. That one last, tantalizing secret lies underneath the colorful figures of “Girl with Lizard” seems only fitting in a tale in which the truth is uncovered by the young man layer after layer, with a mixture of pained reticence and urgency.

Schlink's pared-down style in this story and throughout the collection—his infrequent use of dialogue and metaphor—plays well against the tangled emotions that invariably threaten to undo his characters, heightening them by contrast. He avoids technical fireworks and raised voices and instead seeks to produce a steady level of low tension, one which he can maintain for more than 30 or 40 pages. Giving us that evil urge to peek ahead at the ending—just to get some relief—seems to be at times what he's really after.

When Schlink fails to get us on edge or captivate us, as happens in two of the tales, “The Other Man” and “Sugar Peas,” it's generally out of an inability to generate the atmosphere of mystery and conflict needed to support so measured a pace. In those two stories, his writing becomes labored and didactic. And his tendency to offer guidelines to the reader with paragraphs made of rhetorical questions seems to betray his intuition that he's being less than successful.

Happily, four of the other deftly translated stories that follow “Girl with Lizard” reveal Schlink at his troubling best. In “The Woman at the Gas Station,” a man plagued in his youth by a recurrent dream embarks on a vacation with his wife to celebrate the blossoming of their once-failing marriage. While driving down the Oregon coast, they come upon a gas station seemingly condensed out of his long-neglected dream. He must choose whether to fight to remain “awake”—to stay with his wife and continue their journey together—or to let himself be led where this confluence of inner and outer reality will take him.

“A Little Fling” follows a loose-knit love triangle in which motivations become twisted into perverse shapes by an East German regime that plays on personal failings to encourage betrayal. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a judge from the West befriends a couple from the East, Paula and Sven. After ending a brief affair with Paula, the man learns that Sven has supplied information about him to the secret police—not out of revenge, however, but for a secret reason. Schlink cleverly shifts our sympathies among the three until, like them, we begin to sense that establishing who is right and who is wrong is, for the moment, irrelevant—or maybe only a matter of perspective. The only question worth asking is: Where do we go from here?

In “The Son,” a German professor is sent to a nameless war-torn country as a neutral observer of peace negotiations. With his safety at risk, he begins to regret his failures to go to his son's defense at key moments in the boy's childhood. When things go badly wrong with his mission, Schlink's riveting prose brings the tale to a shattering close. Can love persist where collective accusations play on collective guilt?

In “The Circumcision,” a law student from Heidelberg living in New York falls for a young Jewish woman whose family is against “mixed” marriages. She soon begins to fiercely criticize his moments of “German-ness,” as when he talks of his country's past as too complicated for easy analysis. The title points toward a possible solution to their dilemma, but expect a surprise ending. Indeed, Schlink's writing nearly always reminds us that what lies hidden underneath personal and national histories has the power to subvert our best intentions and push us along paths previously unimagined.

Ruth Franklin (review date 15 October 2001)

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SOURCE: Franklin, Ruth. “Immorality Play.” New Republic (15 October 2001): 54-60.

[In the following review, Franklin offers a negative assessment of The Reader and Flights of Love, arguing that both are disguised “bad books.”]

That bad books are the books most widely read is an entirely mundane phenomenon of contemporary culture. Every week the major book reviews assess a dozen books in a variety of genres, of varying quality but deemed of sufficient significance or originality or beauty to merit a thousand words or so. With only a few exceptions, these books then vanish forever: good books get reviewed, but bad books get bought.

Once in a while, though, books of “literary merit” do take a spin on the best-seller list. These are often just bad books in disguise—Corelli's Mandolin, or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. With regard to style, both of those books are credible imitations of the real thing; but unlike the “designer” handbags hawked on the street, what gives away these knock-offs is not their detailing but the absence at their core. Under the weight of all their trappings—pseudo-historical documents, lengthy digressions on esoterica, winking self-referentiality—they shudder with emptiness.

The best recent example of the disguised bad book is surely Bernhard Schlink's The Reader. Schlink was a professor of constitutional law who wrote mystery novels in his spare time, but with the publication of The Reader in 1995 he erupted onto the literary scene in Germany and around the world. The book already ranks among the best-selling German paperbacks of all time, and around two million copies have sold in the United States alone, fueled largely by Oprah Winfrey's endorsement. Der Spiegel deemed Schlink's book “one of the greatest triumphs of German literature since the novel The Tin Drum.” If Günter Grass's epic was the quintessential novel of the wartime generation, The Reader was aimed squarely at the “second generation,” the lucky but oppressed ones born later.

There is every indication that Flights of Love, Schlink's first collection of short stories, may fare similarly. Sandwiched between J. K. Rowling and John Grisham, it has been a presence on the German best-seller lists since its publication last year. German critics have praised Schlink as a “master of the craft” and his stories as “virtually perfect.” One writer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has mordantly proposed that the stretch of highway between Frankfurt and Stuttgart be nicknamed “the Flights of Love Stretch,” since it is the same duration as the playing time of the audio version of Schlink's volume. Oprah's vast flock will no doubt snap it up in its English translation.

Schlink's disguise is well-made. He is a master of appearances, but only of appearances. His books appear to have serious themes: in The Reader, the difficulties of the second generation in reconciling with the Nazi past; in Flights of Love, the jealousies and infidelities and sublimities of love affairs. Both books owe the entirety of their momentum to the machinations of plot, but the plot is spun charmingly and contrivingly enough that you hardly have a chance to discover that the characters are vacant, virtually without interior lives. Schlink's style is perfectly calibrated to appeal, spare enough to earn the intellectual-sounding description of “minimalist,” but more Calvin Klein than Donald Judd. The sex scenes in The Reader are submerged in a gentle haze of nostalgia, while the courtroom drama seems to glow with fluorescent light. Schlink's diction is simple, lucid, with a touch of allusiveness: just enough to give one the sense that something might be happening beneath the surface, but not enough to make it imperative to find out exactly what.

And Schlink's work is not only mediocre, it is also pernicious. What makes it pernicious is that it offers moral shortcuts as well as literary ones. The Holocaust was very much at the forefront of the German psyche in 1995, which saw the fifty-year anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps and the end of World War II. The coming-to-terms-with-the-past movement, which had been muffled in the tumult following the crash of the Iron Curtain, surged up again. In the midst of the ceremonies and the public apologies and the debates about reparations, The Reader, which hints at very serious ethical questions but does not make an effort to provoke any kind of rigorous thought, offered an alternative: a way to feel as though one is therapeutically “working through” the problems of the past while in fact remaining comfortably aloof from them. No heavy lifting is required.

From the start, The Reader offers itself as a parable. It is the 1950s, and Michael, the narrator, is ill with hepatitis—Gelbsucht, literally “yellow mania,” as reminiscent of the yellow star of the doomed Jews as of the jaundice associated with the disease. The town in which he lives could be any West German town, with street names that are the run-of-the-mill equivalents of Main Street or Elm Street. His illness begins in the fall and ends with the coming of spring: “The colder and darker the old year turned, the weaker I became. Not until the new year did things start looking up.” He meets Hanna when she discovers him vomiting in the courtyard of her apartment building; she makes him help her to clean up the mess and then leads him home. The implications are clear: postwar Germany is sick, and it can begin to heal only through its encounter with the Nazi past.

Michael's relationship with Hanna is steeped in moral difficulty from the start. After his recovery, he takes her a bouquet of flowers to thank her, but flees her apartment after she catches him watching her get dressed. Afterwards he scolds himself for his inability to stop fantasizing about her, while simultaneously devising excuses for seeing her again. “Did my moral upbringing somehow turn against itself?” he wonders. “If looking at someone with desire was as bad as satisfying the desire … then why not the satisfaction and the act itself? … That is how I rationalized it back then, making my desire an entry in a strange moral accounting, and silencing my bad conscience.” Considering Hanna's past—is there anyone who does not know, or could not guess, the premise of The Reader?—these justifications for action despite one's better judgment take on an ominous tone. And so does Michael's explanation for finally going to see her again: “I don't mean to say that thinking and reaching decisions have no influence on behavior. But behavior does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided. It has its own sources.”

Much has been made of the eroticism of Michael and Hanna's relationship—particularly by the Oprah audience, which found the prospect of sex between a fifteen-year-old boy and a thirty-six-year-old woman “unhealthy.” (Schlink has mocked this American preoccupation, commenting that “I have never experienced a discussion like this with readers in Germany or France.”) But Schlink, layering on the symbolism, repeatedly associates Hanna with the maternal. Before she and Michael have sex for the first time, she greets him from the bath with an outstretched towel and dries him. Throughout the narrative Michael makes reference to the twenty-one-year gap between their ages, noting again and again that “she could be my mother.” References to milk and to milkiness also are scattered through the text. And of course there is the central motif of reading aloud, typically an activity in which parents engage with their children, though The Reader reverses the roles. Germans will easily make the connection with Germany, Pale Mother, a well-known film made in 1980 that dealt graphically and hauntingly with the aftermath of the war, taking its title from a famous poem by Brecht. The “mother,” of course, is the Nazi past, of which Michael is a child.

This becomes even more explicit in the second part of the novel, in which Michael, now a law student, recognizes Hanna among the concentration camp guards on trial in a case that his class is observing. It is the 1960s, and the first inquiries into the Nazi past are just getting under way. “We students in the seminar considered ourselves radical explorers,” Michael says. “We all condemned our parents to shame, even if the only charge we could bring was that after 1945 they had tolerated the perpetrators in their midst.” This is the classic dilemma of the second generation in Germany, which Peter Schneider and many others have thoroughly explored: that the “perpetrators” were in many cases one's own parents. Even if, as in Michael's case, one's parents were technically guilty of no crime—Michael's father lost his job as a philosophy professor for lecturing on Spinoza, and spent the war editing hiking maps—there could be no absolution from the general collective guilt.

But Hanna, it turns out, is guilty of a heinous crime. With a few other guards, she led a group of several hundred women prisoners on a death march, and on the way the women took shelter in a church for the night. The church caught fire, and the guards, who had remained outside, allowed the prisoners to burn to death rather than unlock the doors. Hanna conducts herself oddly in the courtroom, appearing to have no knowledge of the normal procedures and speaking more openly than she should, and the lawyers for the other defendants are able to make her out to have been the ringleader. Finally the judge demands that Hanna give a handwriting sample so that the court can determine whether it was she who wrote a report about the incident, and rather than do so she confesses to writing the report and receives a life sentence.

Suddenly Michael realizes that Hanna is covering up the fact that she can neither read nor write—and more: that her desire to conceal her illiteracy has guided her steps throughout her life. For she joined the SS only after being offered a promotion at her factory job, to a position in which she would be unable to hide her illiteracy. The SS had been recruiting at her factory at the time, and so she signed up. The same situation occurred during her affair with Michael: the streetcar company where she had been working as a driver offered her a promotion, and to avoid being found out, she unceremoniously left town without saying goodbye, wounding Michael forever.

“Why,” Michael wonders, would Hanna “opt for the horrible exposure as a criminal over the harmless exposure as an illiterate?” With its attempts to answer this question, which constitutes the moral center of The Reader, the novel falters in a way from which it cannot recover. The problem is not only that it is quite implausible that anyone would choose to be exposed as a Nazi rather than as an illiterate. It is also that Michael views Hanna's unusual trajectory—the fact that, owing to her illiteracy, she made truly terrible life decisions—as exonerating. “No, Hanna had not decided in favor of crime. She had decided against a promotion at Siemens, and fell into a job as a guard.” But this is a ludicrous distinction. Michael has already acknowledged the truism that to decide against something is, practically speaking, as good as deciding for its alternative. And what about the people of his parents' generation whom he has already criticized for “tolerating the perpetrators in their midst”? One could easily argue that they simply happened to live next door to Nazi Party members—that they just “fell into” their circumstances as well.

If we accept Michael's assessment of Hanna's accidental Nazism, we have two choices. Either she is the tender exception to the usual brutishness—the book seems to support this interpretation, since the other defendants are depicted as crude and harsh—and so she is not really a Nazi, and so Michael's love for her does not really present that much of a problem. Or perhaps many others were, like her, victims of circumstance; and they, too, were motivated by convenience and the need for employment, not by ideology. Is it fair, then, or is it even possible, to punish those who regarded the SS as simply a line of work?

Schlink can offer no guidance out of this morass. “The pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate. … I was guilty of having loved a criminal,” Michael says, thus implicating the entire German second generation—for who among them is not “guilty” of having loved a parent or spouse or friend or relative who was either a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer? And this, too, is wrong. One can love a criminal without also taking on the responsibility for his or her crime. Is the mother of a convicted murderer who pleads for mercy for her son also guilty? One assumes a measure of guilt only by abetting a crime, or by supporting the criminal in its conception or its execution. The second generation certainly has a responsibility to understand the crimes of its parents, but it is not guilty of them.

But what may be the most disturbing thing about The Reader is that Michael seems to believe that by learning to read, as she does in prison, Hanna takes an important step toward repentance for her crimes. Michael himself plays an important role in this development: he records books on tape and sends them to her, and by following along she teaches herself to read. Michael selects the books carefully—during their affair he had enjoyed reading Russian literature to her, but now he puts Hanna on a strict diet of German classics, starting with Goethe and Fontane and progressing up to the mid-twentieth century. He records the title of each one in a notebook:

Taken together, the titles in the notebook testify to a great and fundamental confidence in bourgeois culture. I do not ever remember asking myself whether I should go beyond Kafka, Frisch, Johnson, Bachmann, and Lenz, and read experimental literature, literature in which I did not recognize the story or like any of the characters. To me it was obvious that experimental literature was experimenting with the reader, and Hanna didn't need that and neither did I.

But the evidence of history demonstrates that Michael's “confidence in bourgeois culture” is misplaced. It is well known that Hitler enjoyed Wagner and that Goebbels was a fan of Shakespeare; and that “ordinary Germans” had the highest rate of literacy in Europe. In the face of this evidence, only a naïf could have such faith in the humanizing power of literacy and of literature. Cynthia Ozick has concluded, for this reason, that Schlink's characterization of Hanna is calculated, and suspects that she is “the product, conscious or not, of a desire to divert from the culpability of a normally educated population in a nation famed for Kultur.

Once Hanna is able to read, she turns systematically to books about the Holocaust, of which she manages to amass a small library—Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Eichmann in Jerusalem, “books on women in the camps, both prisoners and guards.” Michael interprets this as a sign that Hanna has “dealt with it [her past] intensively.” And this, again, poses a contradiction. For Michael himself has acknowledged that books can have the effect of distancing us from history:

Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one. Our imagination knows its way around in it, and since the television series Holocaust and movies like Sophie's Choice and especially Schindler's List, actually moves in it, not just registering, but supplementing and embellishing it. Back then, the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations. The few images derived from Allied photographs and the testimony of survivors flashed on the mind again and again, until they froze into clichés.

Hanna, presumably, is in no danger of allowing the Holocaust to freeze into clichés; she has her own memories to draw upon, and need not depend on Steven Spielberg. Tacked onto the ending of The Reader, Hanna's dutiful absorption of the Holocaust studies curriculum seems no more than a cheap sympathy-rousing device.

Flights of Love is much less ambitious than The Reader, and so its failures are less spectacular. Strangely uneven, it includes a small handful of respectable stories and several more of bewildering incompetence. Schlink has branched out a bit: only one story deals explicitly with the aftermath of World War II. The rest touch on other aspects of what one critic has called “the theme park of Germany”: the relationships between East Germans and West Germans, between Jews and Germans, between German men and German women. One has the sense of a mind choking, having bitten off more than it can chew.

The first story in the collection, “Girl with Lizard,” is the most accomplished. Here Schlink is on familiar territory—the crimes and the misdemeanors of the Nazi past—and the story takes up many of The Reader's themes and motifs. Again the plot turns on an absurdly obvious revelation that is coyly concealed until its exposure renders it an anticlimax. Again it is the 1950s, and again a young boy is obsessed, though this time the object of his affection appears to be somewhat more innocent: the painting that hangs in his father's study. The family leads an elegant bourgeois life, but the boy (who is never named) has the sense that “his parents … seemed to be holding back, hiding something.” Soon it becomes clear that the painting, which depicts a girl and a lizard, is at least one of the things that they are hiding; when he wants to use it for a school project, his father tells him that it must be kept private. “Don't you keep things just to yourself sometimes, too?” is the only explanation.

Just before he is to start college, the boy visits an art museum and discovers the work of a painter named René Dalmann, including a masterpiece lost in the war, Lizard with Girl, that is the mirror-image of his painting of the girl and the lizard. He learns that the French-born Dalmann fled from Berlin back to Strasbourg with his Jewish wife around the time of the notorious exhibition of Degenerate Art, in which Dalmann's work was displayed; and after the German invasion of Strasbourg they were never heard from again. Meanwhile the boy grows increasingly obsessed with the painting; he talks to the girl with the lizard, and when he brings girls back to his room he feels that he is cheating on her.

For a moment it looks as if the boy will seriously engage with the Nazi past: he removes the frame from the painting, revealing parts of it that were previously hidden, including the signature, which is of course René Dalmann's. Thus the mystery, if it was a mystery at all, is solved; but there is more. The boy goes home and confronts his mother about the painting's history (his father has since died), and he learns that his father, who was serving as a judge in Strasbourg during the late 1930s, had an affair with the artist's wife and probably acquired the painting by blackmail. Years later his father would lose his job when it was revealed that during the war he had condemned to death an officer whom he had himself turned in for helping Jews. And if this were not enough, the boy learns that when his mother confronted his father about the affair, he raped her, and their son's conception resulted.

These melodramatic revelations throw the boy even further into a tailspin. And it suddenly dawns on him that he is repeating the steps of his parents:

He was standing in the middle of the room and looking at this order. The order of books in the bookcase, which reminded him of the ordered books in his father's bookcase. The same shabby tidiness that his mother had summoned up to counter the family's decline. Girl with Lizard, no longer in its golden frame but a canvas stretched on wood, yet as dominating as it ever was in his parents' house. And just as had been the case at home, the painting was a treasure, a mystery, a window onto beauty and freedom, and at the same time a commanding, controlling power to whom sacrifices would have to be made.

That night he takes the painting to the beach and throws it onto a bonfire, and as it blazes the Girl with Lizard canvas curls back to reveal the other lost Dalmann painting, Lizard with Girl, concealed beneath it. Then both are consumed.

Like Michael in The Reader, the nameless boy in “Girl with Lizard” appears at first to be making an effort to come to terms with the Nazi past, in this case by investigating the history of the painting. And like Michael, in the end he fails to properly come to grips with it. But where The Reader ends with a lame attempt to bring about Hanna's rehabilitation through literacy, in “Girl with Lizard” Schlink does not shrink from his character's failure. Though the burning of the painting could be read as a purifying gesture—its immolation redeems the sins of the boy's father in coming to own it—it is more likely a gesture of futility, a misguided attempt to incinerate the past and start anew. Perhaps burning the painting is the only way in which the boy is able to handle the past. But the past cannot be incinerated, and the boy will forever be haunted by the destruction of not one but two great works of art—the story's last sad turn.

Since Schlink has trouble sustaining a distinct idea or metaphor over the course of an entire story, he is most readable when, as in “Girl with Lizard,” the events of a story are gripping enough to carry it along. In “The Circumcision,” one of the lower points of Flights of Love, he leaves the characters largely plotless, leaving them to their own devices to fill pages with conversation and argument. Andi, a German exchange student in America, is in love with Sarah, who is Jewish and a descendant of Holocaust survivors. Their relationship grows fraught with the tension between their cultures. Andi does not want to convert formally to Judaism, so he asks a friend who is a doctor to circumcise him, hoping this gesture will save their increasingly combative relationship. But when he returns from Germany, where he underwent the operation, Sarah does not notice the change; and when he points it out, she fails to understand what has taken place, assuming that he must always have been circumcised.

Though Schlink's depiction of Sarah and her family has an undeniable ring of truth, it is hard to think of a similarly stereotypical portrayal of Jews in all of contemporary literature. Certainly many American Jews hold opinions about Judaism and about Germans similar to those represented in “The Circumcision,” but Schlink's unsympathetic, deadpan recitation of them is weirdly lacking in perspective. “He must not be lost. Not one more must be allowed to be lost,” one of Sarah's elderly relatives intones upon the bar mitzvah of his great-nephew. Sarah's sister unapologetically tells Andi that the worst thing that she can imagine happening to her young sons is for them to marry non-Jewish women, and cites statistics about intermarriage. Sarah criticizes Andi's analytic tendencies, and when he takes her on a trip to Germany she makes fun of the country's orderliness and cleanliness: “Everything here looks as if you'd just finished the job.” It is hard to imagine why a woman with such stereotypically narrow-minded relatives and attitudes would ever date a German man in the first place. (And certainly it would not escape such a woman's attention that her boyfriend was uncircumcised.)

But Andi's obtuseness is even more difficult to understand. When Sarah's sister makes her pronouncement, he wonders: “Was what Rachel had said the same as if he'd said the worst thing for him would be for his son to marry a non-German, a non-Aryan, a Jew, or a black? … As a German, wasn't he allowed to think that like every religion Judaism lives from being voluntarily chosen and dies when that is no longer the case? Did Rachel believe … that the Jews were in fact a chosen people?” Later, he asks Sarah: “How would you feel if I were to say to you that I love you even though you're Jewish? That my friends look for what is Jewish about you? That they actually think it's a bad thing that I'm going with a Jewish girl, but still like you anyway?”

Both Sarah and Andi are so insensitive to the other's concerns that it is no surprise that their relationship suffers. The mystery in this story is what brought them together in the first place, since Schlink makes no attempt to depict either as a person rather than a stereotype. By the time we get to Andi's circumcision—“What sort of religion is it that isn't content with the symbol of surrender, but instead demands that the surrender leave an irreversible physical mark? A surrender that the mind may betray, but to which the body must forever be faithful?”—we, too, have lost all sympathy.

Of the remaining five stories in Flights of Love, four take infidelity, both men's and women's, as their subject. Two of these are generally inoffensive, and even mildly evocative. In “A Little Fling,” another creature of its time, the narrator, a West German man, becomes friendly with an East German couple. Their relationship unravels after the fall of the Wall, when he sleeps with the wife after her discovery that her husband spied for the Stasi. Though the story is hampered by Schlink's romantic clichés—the narrator continually longs for the woman to let her hair down—the friendship among the three is sketched generously and elegantly, and the narrator's relationship with the couple's child is especially affecting.

In “The Other Man,” a widower learns from reading his wife's letters that she once had a brief affair. He seeks out her former lover and strikes up a friendship with him, only to find that he is a phony and an imposter. The reasons presented for the wife's interest in this strange figure are not as interesting as Schlink thinks they are: “Lisa stayed with you because she loved you,” the man tells the widower, “but she was happy with me. And I'll tell you why that was. Because I'm a braggart, a blowhard, a loser. Because I'm not the monster of efficiency, righteousness, and peevishness that you are. Because I make the world pretty. You see only what it presents to you on the surface, and not what's hidden underneath.” But Schlink has again taken a peculiar scenario and spun something human out of it.

All that is good in these stories, though, is erased by the bizarre “Sugar Peas,” another story that consists of nothing aside from its meandering and incredible plot. Thomas, a successful architect married to his business partner, is cheating on his wife with two different women, the gallery owner who represents his paintings and a much younger dental student. (One of this story's most plausible elements is that the architect finds painting to be a highly profitable sideline.) Their demands on him increase, he lacks the will to end any of the three relationships, and one day he simply runs away and spends a year traveling around Europe dressed as a monk, severing contact with all of them. (With two of these women he has children.) Then, in a freak accident, his cassock gets caught in the doors of a train and he is paralyzed. After several months Thomas is transferred to a hospital in Berlin, and when his rehabilitation is over his dentist girlfriend picks him up and takes him back to the apartment where he used to live. His wife and his other girlfriend are waiting. They explain that as payback for his disappearance, he must transfer the rights to all of his future work to them, or they will take revenge. Here is the dentist:

You're a cripple in a wheelchair and you need help. … Don't be silly and force us to turn off the elevator and cut telephone service or let you develop a bed sore or two or a urinary tract infection. Besides, you'll have your reputation as an architect, an artist, and the founder of a dental clinic empire. If you won't play along, then we'll find a young artist who can paint in your place, and Jutta will design the bridges, and I'll take care of myself and my dental clinics. Meanwhile you'll be stuck up here, without an elevator or telephone, and we'll have shutters put on the windows.

It is hard to decide what is more depressing, the women's tone of glee or the resignation with which Thomas submits to their abuse. Though neither men nor women come off especially well in Flights of Love generally, “Sugar Peas” truly verges on misogyny in its depiction of the cruelty of women scorned.

The Reader and Flights of Love have been praised for their impeccable contemporaneity, their aura of being exactly and faithfully of their time. In 1995, a season of commemorations, Schlink delivered The Reader as if on cue. Flights of Love, too, is indeed a “theme park” of all the German obsessions of the 1990s: the transformations wrought by the fall of the Wall, the uneasy cohabitation of Germans and Jews, the emotional and financial issues surrounding restitution of property stolen or lost during the war.

But books that are so precisely of a particular moment set themselves a limit that is very difficult to transcend. The characters and the situations that they present are fresh in the mind, but they are so familiar as to be indistinguishable from clichés. One thinks of Salman Rushdie's recent disaster Fury, a romp through the New York of last year—who knew that so soon it would seem a paradise?—with knowing glances at Jennifer Lopez and Hillary Clinton. Populating one's novel with the characters of yesterday is just another literary shortcut: since evoking them involves no creative strain on the part of the writer, the reader's imagination remains uninspired as well, and what ensues is a cartoon rather than a fully-formed person.

Like mascots at the theme park, Schlink's protagonists stamp their way through their predetermined plots. Morality plays, with their rigid archetypes and their easy allegory, have been popular for centuries. But Schlink has come up with something new: the morality play without a moral. His disguise may get him as far as the best-seller list, but after that he is on his own.

Louis Begley (review date 17 January 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3689

SOURCE: Begley, Louis. “Lonely in Germany.” New York Review of Books 49, no. 1 (17 January 2002): 16-17.

[In the following review, Begley commends the stories in Flights of Love, which he views as extensions of the thematic concerns in The Reader.]

Flights of Love is the second work of fiction by the German writer Bernhard Schlink to appear in English. Schlink became famous following the publication in 1997, in the United States, of his novel The Reader, published in 1995 in German under the title of Der Vorleser, a German word that denotes one who reads aloud to others. It has no precise equivalent in English. The Reader had the biggest international success of any German novel since The Tin Drum. It would be satisfying to say that the popularity of this short, intelligent, and beautifully written work in the US was entirely owing to critical recognition of its high literary merit. In fact, Schlink's novel received a powerful boost in 1999 from its selection by Oprah's Book Club. Schlink is also the author of a trilogy, Selbs Justiz (1987), Selbs Betrug (1994), and Selbs Mord (2001), which records the exploits of the eponymous central character, Gerhard Selb, a rather lovable former Nazi prosecutor practicing, in the style of the more intellectual members of that profession, as a private eye in an imperfectly denazified Germany. He wrote yet another thriller, Die gordische Schleife (1988), whose protagonist is a lawyer called Georg Schlink.

Bernhard Schlink was born in 1944. He belongs, therefore, to what he has called in The Reader the second generation: Germans who were children during World War II, or were born soon after it, and thus had not, in either case, any personal involvement in the crimes their countrymen committed during the war, or any direct moral responsibility for them. But the members of the second generation all had fathers and mothers, grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, older brothers and sisters, and neighbors who could not claim the same alibi. That being the case, could these younger Germans say to themselves, if not to the world at large, I am not my elders' keeper? What kind of relations of trust or distrust, or love or hatred or indifference, could they have with those elders? As might be expected from a remarkably gifted novelist who, as though by predestination, has also been a professor of law and a judge, Schlink explores these questions in The Reader scrupulously, delicately, and without pretending to provide unshakable answers. The short stories collected in Flights of Love seem to me to continue and extend that research, and for that reason are best read with the novel as background.

The Reader begins in the manner of a beguiling, nostalgic Bildungsroman. Not long after the war, one may suppose in 1960 or thereabouts, in a small West German city, a fifteen-year-old boy, Michael Berg, born into a solidly bourgeois and anti-Nazi family (the father, a university professor of philosophy, was chased from his job for undertaking to give a lecture on Spinoza), is seduced by a good-looking woman in her thirties, one Hanna Schmitz, who happens to be a streetcar conductor. She is a wonderfully maternal lover, although her temper can flash: in one moment of anger, she hits him so hard on the face with a leather belt that his lip splits.

Among their rituals one is especially important: her insistence on being read to aloud. Although Hanna clearly has little education, she is receptive to great novels. Thus Michael reads to her all of War and Peace. It is a certainty in literature, if not in life, that the affairs boys or very young men have with women sufficiently old enough to be confused with their mothers will end sadly. One need only think of Madame de Warens, the maman in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, Madame de Rênal in The Red and the Black, or Colette's Léa in La fin de Chéri. Thus Michael “betrays” Hanna: he doesn't want his friends to see him with her; he won't talk to them about her. One day, after such a betrayal, she disappears.

The next time Michael sees Hanna, he is already a law student and, as a member of a seminar on “retroactive justice,” attends a trial of a group of former SS guards, including Hanna, at a concentration camp that was a sort of tributary of Auschwitz. One of the questions the seminar is considering is whether it should be sufficient for a finding of guilt that the laws under which the guards are tried were already on the statute books when the crimes were committed regardless of how the laws were interpreted and enforced at the time. Or would it have to be shown that the people on trial violated laws that were in fact applied to guards at the time? It is obvious that the case is going badly for Hanna, in part because she doesn't seem to understand her situation as well as her codefendants do. A crucial question in the trial is to establish who wrote a particularly incriminating report on the death march that the guards had forced inmates to make after the collapse of the eastern front. Hanna is asked for a sample of her handwriting. Rather than submit it, she testifies that she wrote it.

By now, Michael has understood a fact of capital importance: Hanna can't read or write. Hence she could not have written the damning report. Her illiteracy explains some of the mysteries of her behavior, such as the passion for being read to and her rages when it seemed that her ignorance was about to be uncovered. Michael believes that Hanna would appear less malevolent to the judge and the jury if they knew that she is illiterate, and her sentence would be less severe. Although Michael realizes that Hanna has seen him in the courtroom, he has made no attempt to speak to her or establish any other sort of contact. But shouldn't he immediately inform the judge that she was not the author of the report because she doesn't know how to write?

One would suppose that the answer had to be yes, but Michael finds that he is in a moral dilemma. Has he the right to divulge a secret that Hanna has struggled so hard to hide? It is, he realizes, a secret that led her to enroll in the SS, in preference to accepting a promotion to a factory job that required the ability to read and write. And it is because of the same secret that she precipitously left the town in which she and Michael lived, when once again she was threatened by a promotion for which she couldn't qualify. Michael turns for advice to his father, a man difficult to approach. (Schlink writes, “For a long time I believed there must be a wealth of undiscovered treasure behind that uncommunicative manner, but later I wondered if there was anything behind it at all.”) But his father is a philosopher who has written about Kant and Hegel, and this is precisely the sort of difficulty in which he should be able to offer advice.

Michael puts the case to the father in abstract terms, and the father answers in kind, saying one must consider “the human being as subject and the fact that one may not turn him into an object.” He concludes that there is no reason why Michael's view of what is best for the person in the hypothetical example should take precedence over that person's own conception of the good. This is what Michael wanted to hear: he is not duty-bound to inform the judge, indeed has no right to do so. He could, consistent with the father's advice, seek Hanna's permission to disclose her secret, but feels he cannot do so without giving her some vision of an acceptable future once she has served out her term. The truth is that he prefers not to face her. And so Hanna is sentenced to life, while the other guards receive shorter terms.

One is tempted to see this dismal failure as something more than the inability to speak to each other that afflicts Schlink's fathers and sons. Schlink may have intended to epitomize a peculiarly German form of refusing to take responsibility, by which a concrete and urgent need to act, for instance to stop a brutal assault on a neighbor, is transformed into an abstract problem calling for the reconciliation of conflicting duties. The answer derived from philosophizing may be ambiguous enough to justify remaining on the sideline and avoiding troublesome or dangerous commitments. If Michael and his father had spoken not about what was owed to a “person” but about what was owed to Hanna in her concrete circumstances, the outcome might have been different.

But even before Hanna's trial, Michael has turned into a man marked by a “juxtaposition of callousness and extreme sensitivity.” He is unable to find fulfillment in his work or form lasting attachments to other women, perhaps because they aren't Hanna. He suffers from a form of fatigue, observing that “coming to grips with our parents' guilt took a great deal of energy.” He realizes that there are monstrous, unanswered questions to be confronted: “How could those who had committed Nazi crimes or watched them happen or looked away while they were happening or tolerated the criminals among them after 1945 or even accepted them—how could they have anything to say to their children?” In the case of the children, he asks, was it a “fact that their love for their parents made them irrevocably complicit in their crimes?” In his own particular case, he could not point an accusing finger at his parents. Thus:

The zeal for letting in the daylight, with which, as a member of the concentration camp seminar, I had condemned my father to shame, had passed, and it embarrassed me. But what other people in my social environment had done, and their guilt, were in any case a lot less bad than what Hanna had done. I had to point at Hanna. But the finger I pointed at her turned back to me. I had loved her. Not only had I loved her, I had chosen her.

Only in the first of the seven stories assembled in Flights of Love, and elegantly translated by John E. Woods, the chilling and eerily poetic “Girl with Lizard,” are we explicitly brought close to the central question of The Reader: the predicament of a son whose father may possibly have been guilty of war crimes. In the second story, “A Little Fling,” the connection is in the corrupting political consequences of the lessons taught and learned in the Communist period. The remaining stories are understated morality tales suggesting obliquely the impact that the “lived reality” of collective guilt has had on Schlink's contemporaries. Transmitted like original sin from father to son, but impossible to wash away, the sense of past crimes has left them numb, with feelings that their lives are unsatisfactory and unsatisfied. The main characters of these stories are loners, men uneasy in their existence, incapable of losing themselves in a relationship with a woman, indifferent as fathers and uncaring as sons. They bear the marks of acedia, the sin which is the absence of charity and joy. A curious aspect of Schlink's vision is that the curse is visited on the sons only; female German children appear to have been spared.

Like The Reader, “Girl with Lizard” is the story of a boy's growing up in a dignified, bourgeois family. The father is a judge; the parents lead the life of provincial city notables. It is as if Hitler had never come to power, and World War II had never happened. There are peculiarities, though. The boy's parents

seemed to be holding back, hiding something. They were on their guard. If someone told a joke they did not immediately burst out laughing, but waited until others laughed. In conversations with guests they kept their own opinion to themselves. … If sometimes his father could not avoid taking a position or expressing an opinion, the strain of it showed.

The parents guard their space carefully. The boy is not allowed to enter his parents' bedroom and has never entered it, even as a small child. They do not come into his room either without knocking and waiting to be invited in. Another, far more important peculiarity is the presence in the father's study, over the sofa on which the boy is allowed to take naps, of a luminously beautiful painting of a girl, about eight years old, at a beach, leaning on a rock on which sits a lizard, mouth open, flicking out its tongue. The painting is at first the subject of an argument between the parents: the mother refers to it as the painting of a Jewish girl, the father denies this. Later, they never mention it. One day the boy's class is given an assignment, to describe a picture. The boy goes home and, sitting at his father's desk, with the painting before his eyes, writes about it. When the father comes home, his reaction is bizarre. Although he finds that what the boy has produced is very good, he forbids him to hand it in. The painting, he says, is “not for other people.” A little later he explains that the painting

is worth a great deal, and I don't know if I could protect it if people wanted to steal it. Wouldn't it be better if they didn't even know we have it?

Perhaps a year later, the father resigns from the bench and takes a job with an insurance company. We learn later the reason. His wartime past has been uncovered. Rather quickly, the family is déclassée. They move from a stylish building in a fashionable neighborhood to an apartment in a subsidized project at the edge of the city; the piano is sold and piano lessons stop; the boy goes to a different school with coarser students; his mother works as a police department secretary. The father begins to drink heavily and is fired.

The boy is about to graduate; he has decided to study law at a university away from the town where they live and, therefore, away from his parents. His obsession with the painting has not diminished. When he visits the nearby large city he stops at the museum of modern art, and comes upon a painting by an artist he has never heard of that reminds him of the girl with a lizard; something links them powerfully. Returning home, he questions his father about the painting, but the father's answers are evasive or make no sense. He claims that he knows nothing about the painter, that although the painting is very valuable, they would have gotten nothing had they tried to sell it; he has tried hard to protect it so that the boy will someday have it.

The mystery is solved partially, and slowly. During the boy's third year at the university, his father dies in a drunken accident. The boy goes to the funeral, stays with his mother, and talks to her about the future, which for him mainly concerns what will happen to the girl with a lizard. She gives the painting to him. Henceforth, it hangs over his bed in his student's rented room. He learns more about the artist who painted it: he was very prominent, something of a Surrealist, and was included in the Munich exhibition of degenerate art; his wife was Jewish; in 1940 he was in Strasbourg and, after the entry of German troops, he and his wife vanished. The girl with a lizard is indeed valuable.

At last, he questions his mother about what his father did during the war. It turns out that he was a military judge in Strasbourg and after the war claimed that, when he found that the family with which he was billeted were Jews with forged Aryan papers, he protected them. Out of gratitude they gave him the painting. The boy doesn't believe this version of the past. He asks why his father stopped being a judge. Reluctantly the mother tells him a story that seems closer to the truth: he was accused of having condemned a German officer in Strasbourg to death for having helped Jews to escape the police; moreover the officer was his friend, and it may be that the father informed on the officer himself. His father had recorded his own version of the case in a big file in which he rebutted the accusations against him. These are mostly technical corrections to articles that had appeared in the press about the case. When he asks his mother what she thinks of the rebuttal, she replies that it is “as if you admit you poisoned someone's food, but insist that you followed every line of the recipe in The Joy of Cooking—that's the way it reads.”

There is no certainty about what really happened, and the boy doesn't want to go on searching for it. Nor does he want to press his mother to confirm a sudden suspicion: that she has always held him at a distance because he was conceived when his father raped her, after she had rejected him, knowing what he had done in Strasbourg. The girl with a lizard has become in turn the boy's own guilty secret, as well as his obsession. She has come between him and every woman who has tried to be close to him because he does not want the painting to be seen. One evening he solves the problem. He takes the painting to the beach outside the Baltic town where he lives. Young people are sitting around fires, having parties. He builds a fire himself and burns the painting. At least he will not enjoy the fruits of his father's crime; whether the sacrifice will lift from his shoulders the weight of the father's guilt is far from certain.

“A Little Fling,” a wistful story of love and betrayal, begins in a still-divided Berlin where the surveillance of the Stasi is pervasive but largely invisible to the visitor. The narrator is a young West German administrative judge assigned to a welfare court, unmarried, solitary, a new arrival in Berlin without contacts other than with his professional colleagues. Then he makes friends with Sven, from East Berlin, a chess player he meets in a beer garden who challenges him to a game. The friendship expands beyond chess. Sven has a wife, Paula, who teaches classical Greek, and a two-year-old daughter, Julia. The judge loves children, and children take to him immediately. Ancient Greek makes for a bond between the judge and Paula that parallels the bond between the two chess players, but the bond between the men is deeper, perhaps homoerotic, although never overtly. The foursome, if you count Julia, go on a vacation together, in Bulgaria, one of few places where citizens of the GDR may travel. Occasionally, Sven asks the judge to pass a message to the West.

Then the Wall comes down, and a wave of consumerist well-being sweeps over Sven and Paula. People seem more self-absorbed. The judge and the couple realize that their friendship is one of the few that have survived the end of the old era. Other relationships sour with the opening of the Stasi files, and what they reveal to one friend about another. Sven does well, obtaining a tenured position at the university as a professor of Bulgarian and Czech languages; Paula now also teaches at the university, no longer at a Protestant church institution. They celebrate the grant of tenure to Sven, as usual à quatre with Julia, and the narrator senses an unpleasant tension between Sven and Paula. He stays up so late with them, and has drunk so much wine, that they persuade him to spend the night at their apartment instead of driving home. He is still awake when Paula comes into his room. They make love. There had been nothing of the sort between them before.

The judge falls asleep after she leaves him, and is awakened by Julia, now a much bigger girl, who tells him she can't sleep because her parents are arguing so loudly. The judge hears them quarreling about the Stasi files. Sven, he learns, has informed on his friends, including the judge, and in a sense also on Paula. He revealed to his Stasi handler intimate details of their sexual relations. He claims he wanted to protect Paula from the consequences of her rather childish antiwar activities. But had he the right to protect her by informing? Didn't she have the right to assume the consequences of her actions, even if it meant imprisonment in Bautzen? One is reminded of the quandary of Michael Berg in The Reader: Has he the right to help Hanna by giving away her closely guarded secret? So Sven has betrayed Paula and the judge, harmlessly, to be sure, in that neither of them has suffered any punishment or public embarrassment; and the judge and Paula have betrayed Sven under his own roof. In Paula's case it was perhaps to take revenge on Sven for his betrayal of her. All three of them feel soiled, irremediably. They break off contact, until Julia's tenth birthday, to which she invites the judge.

Amid the general unease, she stands up to give a speech. It's a pity, says Julia, that friends from the East and the West don't come together as often as they used to, when people had more time. They may lose sight of each other, “‘unless,’ she said with a serious, determined look, ‘we women hold everything together.’” And then they all laugh at each other. Thus, unusually for him, Schlink provides a tender ending; but it is a screen behind which there is a wound that will not heal. In one way or another, this persistence, the awful certainty that what has been done cannot be undone, is the recurrent theme of Schlink's best work.

Martyn Bedford (review date 28 January 2002)

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SOURCE: Bedford, Martyn. “A Moral Maze.” New Statesman 131, no. 4572 (28 January 2002): 54.

[In the following review, Bedford provides a favorable assessment of Flights of Love, but finds weaknesses in several of the volume's selections.]

When a Gentile decides to have himself circumcised so that he can adopt the religion of his Jewish girlfriend, he explains the dilemma like this: “Either she has to become like me, or I become like her. You really tolerate only your own kind.” This is the premise of “The Circumcision,” the longest, strangest story in this collection [Flights of Love] from the author of the critically acclaimed international best-seller The Reader. Indeed, tolerance is a recurring theme in Bernhard Schlink's fiction—and not just tolerance, or the lack of it, between peoples, but the uniquely German issue of how the nation achieves a tolerable assimilation of its collective shame over the Holocaust. If it is true that we tolerate only our own kind—and there is plenty of contemporary and historical evidence—where does that leave a generation who find the actions of their fathers and grandfathers intolerable?

In The Reader, an affair between two Germans—a youth and an older woman haunted by her Nazi past—provided the framework for an affecting study of this intergenerational angst. The couple in “The Circumcision” are close in age, but their love is beset with cultural and racial differences. Andi is a German studying law in New York, whose father was a shady dealer in the booty of the Second World War; Sarah is a computer games designer, an American Jew whose ancestors (those who didn't die at Auschwitz) fled from persecution in eastern Europe. For them, the experience of meeting the parents is more fraught than is usual, evoked by Schlink's incisive prose. Despite all the characteristics that attract them to one another, Andi and Sarah strain under the weight of family, history and their own psychological, emotional and intellectual “otherness”. They can't help but pick away at the traits that hint at stereotypes: his Germanness, her Jewishness. Are there innate differences between them that can never be tolerated—or, as Andi comes to believe, that can be resolved only by drastic personal sacrifice?

The notion of guilt passing from one generation to the next also features in the opening story, “Girl with Lizard.” A son inherits a painting that he has always loved and, in tracing its origins, he finds it to be hugely valuable. But he makes other, more disturbing discoveries. Did his late father keep the painting, at great personal risk, on behalf of its Jewish owners? Or was he complicit in confiscating it for the Nazis? And how is a young man meant to come to terms with such an inheritance? Again, a set of questions for which there are no simple answers.

Not all of the seven pieces are as subtly executed, and sometimes creaky plotting or thin characterisation spoil an intriguing premise (such as in “The Other Man,” about a widower carrying on a correspondence with his late wife's lover, and “Sugar Peas,” in which three women exact revenge on a cheating husband).

This is meant to be a book of stories thematically linked by love, and Schlink writes with insight about relationships. But he is more convincing when his lovers' lives are entwined in Germany's peculiar evolution. Here, the cumulative effect—as in Rachel Seiffert's Booker-shortlisted triptych of novellas, The Dark Room—is a compelling composite picture of a nation scrutinising its history. Schlink places his characters, and readers, in a moral maze. He poses questions. The answers, it seems—and this, essentially, is the ethical heart of his work—lie in the necessity to do what is right now.

Kathleen Bogan (review date 15 February 2002)

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SOURCE: Bogan, Kathleen. “Pressures of Peace.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5159 (15 February 2002): 23.

[In the following review, Bogan compliments the sophisticated literary style of Flights of Love, calling the work a “provocative collection of stories on the theme of ethical predicaments.”]

It sometimes happens that writers, like peacemakers, advance the very division they set out to examine and even denounce. For Bernhard Schlink, a professor of public law and legal philosophy, this appears to be increasingly the case. Following the international success of The Reader (1998), a Holocaust coming-of-age novel, Schlink has found himself thrust repeatedly into the twin spotlights of adulation and condemnation by critics who either praise or censure him for his method of mingling ethical arguments about the horrors of the Holocaust with the promotion of tolerance and harmony.

Critical and popular attention has intensified with the publication of Schlink's new collection Flights of Love. Skillfully translated by John E. Woods, the seven stories take up the themes of guilt, change and choice that were used so successfully in The Reader to examine the interpenetration of private and public worlds and the individual search for identity in a particular society. Writing against the background of generational guilt that has haunted German fiction since the Second World War, Schlink pushes beyond cultural and geographical boundaries to offer wider perspectives on loyalty and betrayal. He presents these human responses as the inevitable legacy of war, but also as the reaction of modern humanity struggling with the shifting foundations of justice and law, truth and belief in an uncertain present. Throughout the collection, the power of choice is shown as underscoring every action and twist of plot.

“A Little Fling,” for example, sets the complex realities of relationships against the backdrop of politics in pre-Unification Germany. GDR totalitarianism is juxtaposed with global capitalism, duplicity is twinned with fidelity, and personal and public illusions are shattered. The power of choice is the key here, as it is in “The Other Man,” a skillfully crafted detective story, in which a widower plans a complex revenge on his dead wife's lover. The story demonstrates why Schlink has such a following in Germany as a writer of mystery novels. (Three detective novels will appear in English in 2003, followed by a new novel in 2004.) In “Sugar Peas,” an architect reacts to the pressures of a capitalist society, as he spirals out of control with each decision to annex yet another relationship on to the structure of his over-extended world. Another character suffers disillusionments that lead him to dismantle his life, in “The Woman at the Gas Station,” while, in “The Son,” an ageing political observer is finally able to recognize the limits of human nature and thus choose what is ultimately of real value.

The story that seems to have touched a raw nerve with some critics is “The Circumcision,” which describes a German student visiting New York who has a love affair with a Jewish girl. Once marriage is in the offing, their relationship is tested by conflicts, both external and internal, as they come up against a disturbing past and a threatening future. Striving to adjust their personalities to each other, they find themselves finally exemplifying the everyday stereotypes defined by society. Schlink has been criticized for interjecting platitudes into a story that grapples with the Holocaust. He has the boy's uncle ask, in a controversial reference to the Holocaust:

What's the point? That was fifty years ago. I don't understand why we can't let the past be. Why we can't let it be the same way we let the rest of the past be?

A possible objection here might be that the subject of universal reconciliation deserves a larger treatment than can be afforded in a short story, with its limited narrative scope. To have a character raise important questions only in passing may seem like an author genuflecting to the nostrums of today. But Schlink's characters operate in a world of uncertainties. Their visions of reality are intentionally distorted, since that very distortion is evidence of their struggle for meaning in a changing world. Throughout the collection, people are continually re-evaluating themselves and their place in society, readjusting their connections with the past to the demands of the present, in an attempt to find some kind of reconciliation.

Schlink is a sophisticated and conscious artist who combines questing scepticism and romantic expectation in this provocative collection of stories on the theme of ethical predicaments. From this description he might seem a rarefied writer and philosopher—the moral conscience of the world; his writing, however, is grounded in unvarnished observation and often spiced with irony and wit. If his characters sometimes cast doubtful shadows, it must mean that they are real.

Hippocrates said that “healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity”. Despite some virulent adverse comments, particularly from French and German reviewers, Flights of Love may be seen as a gesture to help that process along.

Benjamin Markovits (review date 21 March 2002)

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SOURCE: Markovits, Benjamin. “Are Words Pointless?” London Review of Books 24, no. 6 (21 March 2002): 32-3.

[In the following review, Markovits judges Flights of Love to be an inferior follow-up to The Reader, asserting that the collection lacks adequate feeling and depth to support Schlink's larger thematic concerns.]

The generation battle, in its particular post-Third-Reich incarnation, runs through Bernhard Schlink's work, both his bestselling The Reader and Flights of Love, a collection of short stories loosely arranged around various break-ups and infidelities. Reviewers tend to discuss the books together, partly because Flights of Love develops plots, characters and arguments already present in The Reader, but mostly because The Reader is better, more interesting even in its failures than this sequel. The Reader is a first-person account of a boy's love affair with an illiterate older woman, Hanna, and his subsequent discovery that she had acted as a concentration camp guard in her youth. It has won great praise for its sensitive portrayal of a nearly impossible subject, and drawn angry criticism for its insensitive portrayal of a nearly impossible subject: a lesson that impossible subjects and heightened sensitivities tend to produce a range of responses. Critics have pointed out that the book's premise wrongly suggests that German brutality stemmed from a kind of lower-class illiteracy, from an absence of culture. Hanna learns the full horror of her involvement only when she learns to read, and begins to absorb the best of bourgeois literature: Keller, Fontane, Heine, Mörike, Kafka, Lenz etc.

There is some truth to this charge, but it partly misrepresents the book, and generally misses Schlink's point. Hanna is no idiot before she learns to read; she is warm, curious, sensual, adventurous, greedy equally for love and knowledge. Even in the camps, she delighted in being read to. Her young lover carries the practice on through their affair: they tackle Schiller and Tolstoy together. Illiteracy, in her case, stands not so much for her own lack of sophistication, as for the incomprehensibility of the world around her, and the narrowness of her choices within it. Illiterates learn by rote, and she acted in the camps according to her duties. As one character explains the role of an executioner, ‘he's doing his work, he doesn't hate the people he executes, he's not taking revenge on them.’ Hanna is brought to trial, along with a group of other female guards, for her part in the camps. She is the only defendant to acknowledge the truth: that the guards knew prisoners were being sent to their deaths, that it was their job to choose between them. ‘So what would you have done?’ she asks the judge. This—rather than ‘How much did you know?’—proves the hard question, and the judge has no answer for it.

Hanna's illiteracy is not the most important thing about her. The Reader, like its sequel, centres on a love story. The love story is more than the sugar-coating, in William Golding's phrase, to sweeten the pill of the novel's message; it is the bitter pill itself. Hanna is lovable, capable of arousing the full passion of first love, of raising the pitch of life to memorable joy. Schlink writes best when he looks and breathes the part of the heart-sick youth. Hanna's qualities, physical and intellectual, make her the defining passion of the narrator's life. After the affair both life and prose dry up, fall into argument and analysis. The question the novel poses is this: what to do with such a love, and the guilt it provokes, less by association than continuing affection? As the narrator declares,

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding.

Either way, he feels ‘guilty of having loved a criminal’.

There are some things, in an individual's and a nation's history, about which it is nearly impossible to be honest. Honesty measures not only the accuracy of an account, but the speaker's attitude towards it; he must be free from sentimentality and other kinds of evasion, without slipping into a clinical objectivity that cannot feel what it describes. The difficulty of total—even appropriate—honesty lies at the heart of Schlink's work. Hanna, alone among the accused, admits to her role in selecting the prisoners to be sent away; this was the guards' job, they all did it. She also admits to knowing the prisoners would be killed. They ‘all knew’. In doing so she may have displayed greater courage than her co-defendants, but her confessions also fail to strike the right note. ‘She admitted what was true and disputed what was not. Her arguments became more desperate and more vehement. She didn't raise her voice, but her very intensity alienated the court.’ She realises that ‘what she was saying wasn't doing her case any good. But she couldn't say anything else. She could only try to say what she was saying better, to describe it better and explain it.’ Some things, however, cannot be explained ‘better’ or more honestly; rather, for them honesty is little better than dishonesty. At least lying shows some awareness of the need to lie, acknowledges the horror of the truth.

Flights of Love opens with similar concerns. A story called ‘Girl with Lizard’ describes the way a young man comes to terms with his father's Nazi past. The title refers to a painting that has fascinated the young man since boyhood. It comes to dominate his life: it prompts family disputes while he is growing up, sits over his bed when he goes to college, scares off girlfriends and begins to consume his intellectual energy. As he learns more about the painting, the work of a well-known Jewish artist who disappeared during the war, he comes to learn more about his father's role in such disappearances. Eventually, after his father's death, he confronts his mother with the familiar question: ‘What did Father do during the war?’

The answers are too uncertain to be satisfying. He served on ‘the military court in Strasbourg’; among other things, he once sentenced an officer to death for helping Jews. In his defence, he claims to have had no choice. He had himself worked with the officer, forging the papers, but the Jews might have been caught if he displayed any suspicious leniency towards his co-conspirator. The painting was their gift to him, for helping them escape. Nevertheless, when all of this comes out years after the war, the father loses his job and the family falls on hard times. The son asks his mother what she believes. She gives him a file the father kept of his self-justifications. ‘What did I think?’ she says in reply to his demand. ‘He weighed every sentence. They couldn't have used a single word to lay a trap for him.’ The son breaks in: ‘He copied paragraphs directly from the penal code. He copied them to demonstrate that he couldn't be punished. But it makes for appalling reading. It reads as if he would be willing to acknowledge everything, but insists he did nothing punishable by law.’ As Hanna also learned, a certain kind of confession fails to persuade by its very precision. It is almost impossible to be appropriately honest about such events.

‘The Circumcision’ addresses the difficulty of such honesty—between generations, between cultures—most clearly. A German exchange student, Andi, and Sarah, a New York Jew, fall in love. The more their love grows, the more difficult honesty becomes, a fact for which both their cultures are to blame. Sarah's sister tells Andi that the worst that can happen to one of her sons would be to ‘marry a woman who wasn't Jewish’. Andi finds that none of Sarah's relatives inquire into his history, though he makes a point of being curious about theirs. ‘Why should they pester you to tell your story? They know you're German,’ Sarah explains. ‘In view of which,’ Andi considers, ‘all else is irrelevant, is that it? It was only a thought, he didn't ask.’ When Sarah meets Andi's father, she asks about his experiences in the war; and the father reveals more than he had ever told his son. ‘I had to,’ he explains, ‘or she'd be mistrustful for ever.’ The ‘knowing, friendly look’ that accompanies this remark prompts Sarah to complain that ‘he would have an answer for everything that would put me and my mistrust in the wrong, but would never tell me anything.’ Once again, honesty and the trust that follows it have become impossible.

‘Are words pointless,’ Andi asks himself, ‘because they help you to understand another person, but not to tolerate him, and because what really counts isn't understanding but tolerance?’ Eventually he decides that people ‘tolerate each other only because one side or the other abandons what they are … What was necessary was to give up the normal world that separated you from the other person … You really tolerate only your own kind.’ The story doesn't quite work, largely because Schlink's description of this ‘normal world’ isn't good enough. The affair is less like the passionate beginning of The Reader than the desiccated conclusion to it. It reads like an argument. Schlink, it should be said, weights the argument slightly on Andi's side. This is understandable: he knows more about it, and writes movingly of the difficulty of being German and ‘not being taken for the person I am, but some abstract idea, some construct, some creature of prejudice. With the chance, but also the burden of exonerating myself.’ But he also captures the conflicting needs of the lovers beautifully: for the German, to complicate everything, because only complications can in some measure redeem his past; and for the Jew, to simplify, because only simplicity does justice to such immeasurable mourning.

The best story of the bunch is probably ‘A Little Fling,’ which shifts the realm of secrets from the Third Reich to East Germany under the Stasi. Schlink's descriptive powers never match the early sweetness of The Reader; he is at his best here when he writes with a journalist's eye for the signs of the times. ‘My friendship with Sven and Paula was my only East-West friendship to survive the Wall,’ he begins. ‘The others ended almost as soon [as] it came down.’ The story describes the narrator's relationship to an East German couple and their daughter, and the part he plays in their marriage after Reunification. As Stasi files are made public, Paula discovers that Sven had ‘betrayed’ information about her radical associations in exchange for clemency towards her. She wonders with whom he was honest: the Stasi officer, as he joked about their love life and her harmless enthusiasms; or their friends, for whom he played the part of a supportive radical? The need for secrets creates two kinds of lie: both his public and private assertions come into question. ‘You don't get it,’ Paula screams at him. ‘You didn't save me, not the me I am, but the me that pleased them.’ As the title suggests, Schlink wants to compare sexual and political infidelities, which may have proved interesting had he gone into it in greater detail.

In ‘The Other Man,’ Schlink concentrates on sexual infidelity. Again he is concerned with secrets and the way they corrupt even what is known to be true. Bengt Benner, a recent widower, receives a letter addressed to his dead wife Lisa. It turns out to be from a man seeking to revive an old affair. Aimless and miserable, Bengt begins to investigate the man who cuckolded him. He earns his trust under a false name and plots revenge. ‘Sometimes he asked himself which was worse: that the person you love is another person with someone else or is in fact the person you know so well.’ Here Schlink puts Sven's political betrayal of Paula in sexual terms. How can one stop the rot of betrayal, cut what is true and honest away from the infidelity—a question of broader significance for a generation coming to terms with their parents' role in Nazi Germany. Eventually Bengt understands his own part in Lisa's adultery. Her former lover, Rolf, a flattering conman down on his luck, proves to be ‘a braggart, a blowhard, a loser’. But Lisa was happy with him, as Rolf boasts when Bengt at last confronts him, because Rolf was ‘not the monster of efficiency, righteousness and peevishness that you are’. He made things ‘prettier than they were’ and Lisa loved him for it. Bengt comes to believe Rolf: ‘the beauty he praised contained within it not only a higher truth, but a robust one.’ The recognition lightens the widower's mourning.

The problem with the story is that Rolf's higher truth doesn't persuade. He remains a braggart and a blowhard and a loser. His exaggerations are no more insightful than Bengt's ‘righteous peevishness’. Both seem loveless in the end. Their failing is characteristic of the book as a whole. ‘Flights of Love’ suggests the English phrase ‘flights of fancy’; and though the stories are fanciful enough, the German title, Liebesfluchten, comes closer to the spirit of the work: ‘Love-escapes’ might be a nearer translation, whether ‘into’ or ‘out of’ the individual stories themselves make clear. Again and again, Schlink's men (they are always men) retreat into some corner of their personalities to avoid the demands of love, chief among them the passionate attention to detail that makes Hanna so memorable a character.

In The Reader, Schlink describes the numbness that attends horror; the narrator's concentration on a reasoned and reasonable response to compensate for the death of feeling. Ordinary unhorrified middle age seems to bring about a similar shift in sensibility—Bengt's ‘righteous peevishness’. Schlink turns again to such numbness in ‘Sugar Peas,’ an account of the accumulating careers and affairs of a successful man who eventually spurns both sexual love and material comfort to concentrate entirely on his work. The story is deliberately improbable, but the tenor is sadder perhaps than Schlink intended. It reads a little like Kingsley Amis's account of sexual impotence, Jake's Thing, in which the end of sex prefigures the end of love, but here the prose suffers most of all. The vivid passion of Hanna's affair has dried up, and no adult preoccupation seems capable of replacing it. Analysis and argument, even if their subject is love, cannot make up for the absence of the feeling itself.

For much of Flights of Love, Schlink seems to have bitten off more than he was hungry for. His concerns are heavy enough, but hung on slender incidents, emblems and insights that cannot bear the weight. A father's painting rules and ruins a boy's life; it may stand for a more complex inheritance, but it is still only a painting. Plot and character should take this into account. German and Jew split up over cultural differences. The German's circumcision, undesired, unrequested, seems a poor short-hand for the struggle that leads to his change of heart: ‘He got up and dressed. He opened the apartment door, set his shoes and suitcase out in the hallway, and pulled the door to so gently that it barely clicked. He put on his shoes and left.’ In the final story, a happily married man encounters on holiday the living image of a familiar dream: a woman in shop-worn clothes serving him at a gas station. Surely such a coincidence is too slight to precipitate the desertion that follows. Schlink ends this story, and the book, on a note of restrained optimism:

The next morning he walked to the sea. Once again fog hung over the beach, the sky and sea were grey, and the air was warm, damp and muffled. He had the feeling he had an infinite amount of time.

All his heroes are good at leaving. In Sidney Keyes's phrase, ‘their love and luck lie only in their partings.’

Brian Evenson (review date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Evenson, Brian. Review of Flights of Love, by Bernhard Schlink. Review of Contemporary Fiction 22, no. 1 (spring 2002): 142-43.

[In the following review, Evenson compliments the range of stories in Flights of Love.]

The author of the best-selling The Reader returns with [Flights of Love,] a collection of seven stories vaguely linked by notions of connection and love. The stories themselves, though largely traditional in feel and in their approach to character, show Schlink to be a careful and consummate stylist, someone genuinely aware of the possibilities of working within established form. The characters develop and reach epiphanies, and Schlink generally manages, through slight and subtle means, to convey a genuine sense of what it means to be human. “Girl with Lizard” explores a man's obsession with a painting and the way in which that obsession changes his life. “A Little Fling,” more politically charged, is about relationships between individuals in East and West Germany after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In “The Other Man,” a man discovers after his wife's death that she had had an affair and begins writing to her former lover in the voice of his wife. The main character in “The Circumcision” secretly has himself circumcised out of love for his Jewish girlfriend, but his show of support doesn't quite turn out the way he expects. “Sugar Peas,” perhaps the strongest story in the volume, chronicles a man's obsessive voyage among three women over a long period, ending with him paralyzed. In any case, there's more to Flights of Love than Schlink's being a former Oprah choice would suggest. Though he doesn't move the literature forward as do German-speaking writers such as Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and Arno Schmidt, he makes a good, quiet showing.


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